by B. B. Garin
When the first swimmer disappeared, everyone blamed a shark. Even though environmentalists had been warning about decreased populations and disturbed migratory patterns. Then a paddleboarder vanished inside the sandbar. Tourists milling through Sun-Cream Gift & Dessert Shoppe speculated about freak high tides carrying a shark into the shallows off Folly Beach. No one mentioned the lack of dorsal fins spotted along the coast.
I was fiddling with the churn in a soft-serve machine when Jon brought the latest news.
“Three high school kids,” he told me, rearranging the personalized lobster keychains so they hung out of alphabetical order. “Took a canoe out on the Sandy last night. Never came home.”
The Sandy was a sluggish bit of river winding parallel to the ocean before emptying into the cove on the far side of town. It plodded under the bleached boards of the deck attached to the kitschy souvenir and ice cream store where I worked. If I stepped out the side door among the clutter of sticky picnic tables and two wilting umbrellas, I’d see the brackish water through the cracks in the warped wood.
“Did they find the canoe?” I asked.
Something in the ice cream machine gouged me. I jerked back, sticking my finger in my mouth. Stale sugar mixed with blood.
“No ice cream today,” I said, rummaging around the register for a marker to make an “Out-of-Order” sign.
“I’m not kidding, Darcy,” Jon said.
“About what?” My finger throbbed and brown specks stippled my would-be sign. It was only the second week of summer. My second week as cashier/ice cream girl. Already I felt listless. Without the machine, it’d be a glaring afternoon of exploding kids and short-tempered parents.
“About the canoe,” Jon said. “Pulled way up on the bank. Paddles inside.”
“So? They’re sleeping it off somewhere.”
“No footprints. No marks on the bank.” Jon stopped rattling the keychains and looked at me, brown eyes solemn. “Like something pushed it up from the water.”
I felt lightheaded. I wondered how quickly a tainted dairy induced infection could set in. I’d known Jon since we were six and he’d talked me down after a nasty turn on the teeter-totter. He didn’t make things up. Not even when his mom asked if we’d dented the car driving to Portland and a good story was called for.
“You think the shark got them? And parked their canoe after?” I asked, laughing.
“It’s not a shark, Darcy.”
Jon was a lifeguard on Folly Beach, his summer job of choice the last four years. I’d spent vacations since we were sixteen employed by different establishments on a strip of clam huts, beach shops, and battered motels. That was as close to the ocean as I cared to get.
Jon had teased me about my aversion to the water until he realized it wasn’t fear. It was apathy. I didn’t see what he, and most everyone else, did in the endless blue. To me it was just noise and water.
I picked at the scab trying to form on my finger as Jon’s red shirt disappeared down the crowded sidewalk. Don’t go in the water, I’d wanted to tell him. I thought I could make it a joke. But something else lay heavy and flat in my mind, crumbling the words in my mouth.
If not a shark, what?
The missing teens made statewide headlines. The story wormed across the internet. National news outlets picked it up. Within a week, the normal sunburnt families of the season grew scarce and a new kind of tourist descended.
Fewer floral shirts and over-stretched bathing suits. More cargo pants and binoculars. These guests toted complicated cameras instead of beach umbrellas. I thought the drop-off in traditional vacationers would mean slower days at Sun-Cream, but apparently, 2 for 1 T-shirts are a universal lure. The monster hunters licked runny ice cream from their knuckles with as much enthusiasm as anyone.
Because of my professional proximity to the Sandy, the shark seekers asked constant questions. Had people disappeared in the water before? What was the biggest shark ever reported in the area? Did I know anywhere they could buy a whole butchered cow? I stuttered at their curiosity. I was used to frazzled parents staring through me.
One short, graying woman named Poppy had a theory involving sunscreen. She stopped in every few mornings to buy a different SPF. Her partner sported metal rimmed glasses and a gleaming bald head. She called him Ducks. I doubted anyone else did, but he was one of the rare, un-chatty ones. I never caught another name.
Things had been quiet for three weeks. A few residents were letting their youngsters splash in the shallow pools stretched along the beach at low tide again.
“Last try,” Poppy said, placing a bottle of sunscreen and a handful of saltwater taffy on the counter. “Vacation’s up Sunday.”
I bit my lip. I couldn’t pin a profession on Poppy. Ducks looked like a New England professor unhappily awaiting the fall semester. Even his polo shirts suggested elbow-patches. But I couldn’t picture Poppy going home to anything, except a highly disciplined knitting circle.
Before I could frame an inoffensive reply, Jon rattled the starfish chimes above the door.
“Mark Talbot,” he said in a too calm voice. “And his dad.”
Jon shook his head, slow like he was trying to dislodge water from his ear. “I just saw their boat.”
Mark had gone to high school with us, though he didn’t finish. He’d been working on his dad’s lobster boat since he was twelve. I wondered if he’d ever wanted to do anything else.
I dodged out from behind the register, through the porch door to the rail overlooking the Sandy and emptied my breakfast into the murky water.
“Here.” Jon had followed me with an overpriced, off-brand bottle of water from the shop’s cooler.
I rinsed my mouth and spat over the rail.
“Their boat—” Jon said.
“Don’t tell me,” I interrupted. “Please, please, don’t tell me.”
He nodded and shut up. He was a good friend. He needed to tell someone. But I needed not to hear it, so he wouldn’t. Things were simple like that with us.
“I’m so very sorry.” Poppy and Ducks joined us on the porch, keeping an uncertain distance. “Would it help to talk about it?”
Ducks made a disapproving noise in his throat. Poppy blushed, but she waited, hope gleaming in her eyes. Jon squeezed my shoulder and led the short woman back inside. Ducks shuffled his polished Oxfords across the creaking porch, offering me a wax-wrapped, pink blob.
I took the taffy, smiling weakly. The cotton candy flavor washed the bile out of my mouth.
“What is this thing?” I asked, working the candy around my teeth. “Why’s it trying to kill us?”
“Two of the oldest questions in the universe, I imagine,” Ducks said. He had a dry, library bred voice.
“Oh. Thanks,” I said, falling back on work appropriate responses. I was getting an accounting certificate from the community college down the coast. Philosophy wasn’t on the curriculum.
“Of course, that’s supposing there is a thing,” Ducks said, cleaning his spotless glasses on a corner of his shirt.
“Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“It’s why Poppy’s here.” He resettled his glasses, catching a blinding sliver of sun on the metal rim. “Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just an overly aggressive shark.”
Whether from Jon’s description or sheer luck, Poppy captured the first photo of the shark. And the picture did resemble a shark—smudged in a muddy bank like a sleeping alligator. The scale was hard to make out and the triangular shape could’ve been a tell-tale fin, or it might’ve been a rock.
In fact, the whole thing could’ve been a log. Or a shadow.
Despite Poppy’s state-of-the-art digital camera, the picture was blurry.
It caused an immediate sensation.
Poppy claimed she came within feet of the monster before it slithered into the Sandy and disappeared. The local paper quoted her, “Big, jagged teeth. Dark stains all over. My hands were shaking so hard, I could barely hold the camera.”
Ducks made no comment.
The news about the Talbots, plus Poppy’s smudged photo doubled the town’s population overnight. The charter fishing guys started charging extra to take people out with homemade sonar arrays.
People grew understandably wary of the ocean again. I hoped the lack of swimmers would render lifeguards unnecessary. But the beach was still crammed. Camera lenses flashed under blue skies. The crackle of walkie-talkies rivaled the seagulls.
“Quit,” I told Jon one morning, driving to work.
“What if someone needs help?” he said.
“What if you need help?” I asked. “I wish I’d taken that self-defense class last year.”
Jon laughed. “You going to mace the shark?”
“It’s not a shark.”
His smile faded. “I know. But…”
He shrugged. “Nothing.”
I couldn’t see his eyes behind his cheap, plastic sunglasses. I didn’t need to. I knew he was staring along the baking strip of asphalt to the haze marking the ocean.
Jon received plenty of romantic attention. But I’d never seen him look at one of his girlfriends the way he looked at the ocean on a clear, crisp morning after an October storm.
Cold fear clawed at my belly.
“Quit,” I said, my voice high, smile wavering. “They always need servers at The Lucky Crab.”
“No,” Jon said.
That was it. Not, I’ll be fine or don’t worry. He didn’t try to argue and I’d pulled into the greasy alley next to Sun-Cream, so I couldn’t either. He didn’t even promise to be careful, just waved one hand and jogged toward the water.
Poppy came to say goodbye. She’d gotten an extended vacation due to her sudden fame, but even that was up now. The shark hadn’t made a move in nearly a week, and the fickle interest of the wider world was wanning.
“It’s been a blast,” Poppy said, piling T-shirts for her grandkids on the counter. “But time to go back to the real world.”
I rang up the shirts and one sea-shell snow globe with numb fingers. My real world was sweeping sand off the floor and the lingering cramp in my stomach from a bad lobster roll I’d eaten after Mark Talbot’s wake.
Ducks cleared his throat.
“Of course, it’s all terribly tragic,” Poppy said, patting my hand as I counted out her change.
“Thank you.” I screwed on a smile. “I hope we see you next season.”
Mark and his father were buried the next day. Or at least, two caskets went down into the summer soft earth. The polished wood lids were firmly shut during the wake, forcing us to take leave of our own waxy reflections. I’d heard whispers that there wasn’t anything inside Mark’s besides a pair of drumsticks, the pink bowtie he’d worn to junior prom, and an eternity’s worth of M&Ms.
After the funeral, Jon brought pizza and we ate sitting on the porch steps in my parents’ backyard. Other summers, fireflies had darted around the untamed rosehips that tangled through the Sleeping Beauty-esq hedge at the end of the lawn. But not this summer. I wondered if the luminous insects knew something we didn’t.
I’d traded my stiff black skirt for cut-offs. Jon wore his dress clothes, pant cuffs rolled up above bare ankles, tie gone. He looked like a runaway Catholic school boy, his smile trying to distract from the distance in his eyes.
My mother watched us from her place by the kitchen sink when we passed through the house. Her lips pinched, lines deepening across her forehead. She looked at us like we were strangers. Like we’d arrived unexpectedly.
I ducked my head in mute apology. Jon sailed by with a breezy, “How’re you, Mrs. Rhodes? Would you like some pizza?”
My mother’s frown deepened. Who were these half-grown children, trying to please her with cheese slathered dough? She shook herself, perhaps with a flash of guilt that she still had, by inexplicable chance, what Cynthia Talbot had lost.
“No thank you, dear,” she said, her frown lingering until we were out the door.
I broke the over-baked crust up, scattering cement like flakes amid the wrinkles in the black, button-down shirt I’d worn two summers ago when I waited tables. I’d been shocked by how much tighter it stretched across my chest. Some things just sneak up on you.
I tossed chunks of crust toward the rosehips.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Jon said, pulling out a fresh slice. “The birds will choke.”
I had sudden visions of a monster slithering under my fairytale hedge. After all, there was only a short, grassy slope behind our house before a rocky tumble down to the hungry water. I could hear the crashing if I stopped to listen. But I’d grown up with the sound just on the other side of the horizon. I rarely noticed it.
I scrambled up, combing the long grass for my discarded dinner, while Jon laughed, tomato sauce smeared on his chin.
I dropped the last bit of crust in the box and dusted my hands on my cutoffs. Jon shoved the box behind us, cardboard scrapping on weathered wood. We sat, staring out at the wall of green that shielded us from the salt wind and whatever else lay beyond.
“Today was bad, wasn’t it?” I said.
“Today was the worst,” Jon said.
That was all we ever said about it.
After the Talbots, the town held a meeting. Curfew breaking teens and errant swimmers, were one thing. But now the shark threatened industry. If decent fishermen weren’t safe in their boats, how would the town survive when summer ended and the shark seekers went home? We’d pivoted admirably from family beach destination to monster hunters’ haven. But this was different. This was the buttered, battered, and deep-fried food in our mouths.
I heard about the meeting the morning after. I wouldn’t have gone. My work inspired apathy extended to all things civic. I couldn’t get my head around the idea that I was now expected to have valid opinions about matters that affected other people’s lives.
My dad drove me to Sun-Cream. Whether out of concern for my safety or to escape my mother’s litany against the selfish sons of bitches who populated our town, I’ll never know.
Dad didn’t comment on the meeting. Dad never said much of anything. He was a quiet man with big knuckled fingers and a landscaping job. He seemed like the sort of person who would spend long hours staring into the ocean, but he liked the beach even less than I did. He preferred dirt to sand.
“Jon still lifeguarding?” he asked as we rolled onto Ocean Drive.
“Is there anyone to guard these days?” He didn’t laugh, eyes steady on the empty road.
“The shark people,” I said, squinting against the sun on the asphalt. I’d forgotten my sunglasses.
“He should quit,” Dad said.
“I told him that.”
“You’re smart,” he said, smiling tightly. “You look out for him.”
As soon as he said it, my throat dried up. As soon as he said it, I knew Jon would be next.
After Poppy’s photo, nothing happened. No blips on infrared. No low keening on parabolic mics. No disappearances. No boats left bobbing with gore-stained decks.
We all held our breath, trading shaky smiles and beginning to wonder if we’d overreacted. Accidents happened on the water. We’d had ships swallowed by storms before. Hikers slipping from foggy cliffs. Drowned children. We lived with the ocean. Perhaps for a summer-hazed moment, we’d just forgotten how.
Jon and I registered for our fall semester. I agreed to keep working weekends at Sun-Cream through September, though I doubted there’d be anyone seeking UV protection, plastic mementos, or frozen desserts by then. Even the diehard shark hunters were packing up their dingy vans.
The beach was so wide open, Jon convinced me to run with him in the evenings. I preferred the indoor track at school—solid, cushioning rubber. Plus, I didn’t have to turn around and retrace my wild, smudged footprints. Or stand on the slimy rubber matting of the shower station, peeling sand encrusted socks away from my gummy feet.
“It’s better than passing the same powerwalking professor thirty times,” Jon insisted, tossing his sneakers into my trunk. He stood unperturbed on the gravel lot, sandals dangling from two fingers.
“I like the professors.” I slouched behind the steering wheel. “They make me feel faster.”
Jon laughed. I’d been the fastest girl in our miniscule high school, but all the real track events took place so far away, it never seemed worth the hassle. So, I ran with Jon and shrugged away mentions of “scholarship potential”.
“We had three swimmers today,” Jon said, as I headed up Ocean Drive. “Summer record.”
“Jon, do you…?” I bit my lip, tasting ocean salt or sweat, I couldn’t tell.
“Think it’s safe?”
“Of course not.” He plucked at his damp, red T-shirt. “That’s what I’m there for.”
A new breed of tourists trickled in. Tanned young men and women with glittery nails. They didn’t keep detailed logs of wildlife sightings and tidal anomalies. Or stake early claims to prime beach spots. They wandered out of hotels after noon, giggling at stuffed sharks tucked away in souvenir shops and posing next to the caution signs the town had posted at all the beach entrances.
The Lucky Crab started offering half-priced “Sharknado” cocktails on Thursday nights. Chalked fins and ominous ripples appeared on sidewalk signs. One enterprising teenager launched an unofficial Shark Cove walking tour for ten bucks a head. And even the owner of Sun-Cream ordered T-shirts with a grinning, sunglass sporting hammerhead taking a bite out of the town’s name.
I agreed to stay late unboxing the new merchandise in exchange for not having another go-around with the fickle soft-serve machine. My evening relief banged away at the rusty gears while two thoroughly tanned sightseers pouted at him and I shoved hangers full of cheap cotton onto racks. The smell of burnt sugar and WD-40 clung to the air, stinging my eyes. By the time I shouted goodbye to my coworker, my neck was sticky and I was late to meet Jon.
The new influx of visitors meant Ocean Drive overflowed again with cars trying to dodge wandering pedestrians. I crept down to the parking area for Folly Beach. The sky over the ocean gradually turned translucent, all the light fleeing westward.
I climbed the dune path and started kicking through the loose sand towards the lifeguard tower before I remembered Jon’s running shoes were in my trunk. I waved at him stretching down by the water’s edge. The tide was coming in, lapping his bare feet.
I pointed to my own feet, mimed jogging back to the parking lot. I don’t know if he understood. His cheap sunglasses masked his expression. I blew out a long breath, ice cream sweetness still clotted on my tongue, and turned around.
It feels as if the first shout came before my heel left the sand. But I might’ve started walking before I heard it. I might’ve been closer to the dunes than the water. It’s hard to remember. Blurry, like Poppy’s famous photograph.
At some point, there was shouting. Which turned to screaming. I’d faced the ocean by then. Was running toward it. No, not toward the ocean. Toward Jon.
Two swimmers flailed just past the sandbar. Arms jumping above their heads then jerking back into the water as if to push something away. They kicked in circles, sometimes disappearing completely for two or three heartbeats. Late sunbathers clumped together; cell phones extended.
I chased Jon down the beach, sand spraying against my legs. My muscles carved up the distance. The swimmers drifted further out. They were tiring, their voices no longer carrying to land. In a moment, I knew they’d be gone. There was no point in going after them. No reason for Jon to try.
I got close enough to yell his name. Nearly close enough to grab the red shirt rippling over his back as he splashed through the first waves. I followed him, water rushing up to my thighs, stifling my distance eating stride. The ocean floor sucked at my sneakers, dragging me to a halt. Jon pulled away. He was barefoot and a natural waterman.
I screamed at him till it felt like lightning bolting down my throat. I’m almost sure he looked back at me. I remember he’d lost his sunglasses. I could see his eyes.
Then he dove under, surfacing several yards out. The waves pushed me back up the beach. Jon reached the swimmers. He got an arm around one, then the other, yanking them backwards in turn. All three started for shore, but Jon turned suddenly and dived again. He surfaced once, twice, three times. Each a little further away.
He raised his hand before the third dive. Maybe to signal for help himself. Maybe just so I would see.
I dropped to my knees in the clumped, seaweed strewn sand. Something like thunder answering lightning rumbled in my ears. But it wasn’t thunder. It was the ocean breaking, racing up the sand and dancing away.
The two swimmers sloshed ashore up the beach from me. Striped towels, excited voices and clicking cell phone cameras instantly surrounded them. I felt a brief moment of pity for all those devoted hunters about to be outdone by casual iPhone videos. The babble moved as a single mass toward the relative safety of the dunes.
I remained in the sand, the sky flaring gold behind me. The colors leaked around the corners of my vision. The water darkened.
Waves and silence. The monster was gone.
And so was Jon.
If it was a shark, it never came back. Either Jon finally satisfied its appetite or they sank together. Maybe the thing simply grew bored and moved on.
The two swimmers Jon saved enjoyed a media blitz. We were briefly overrun for the final weeks of August. Dedicated monster hunters sharing cocktails with selfie snapping weekenders. Some of our more traditional tourist families even ventured back when the two swimmers admitted what caught them might’ve been a strong rip tide, adding they were really sorry about that poor lifeguard.
It was a strange summer. Tragic, everyone agreed. Likely another result of climate change.
The town emptied out as usual after Labor Day. I went back to college, making the hour’s drive along the coast four days a week, the ocean dipping in and out beside me. Jon’s running shoes were still in my trunk. They thumped around every curve, spilling sand.
I should’ve thrown them out. Tossed them in the ocean. Let them sink and bob and get swept away. Jon wasn’t sentimental, ruthlessly purging his room every spring and fall of anything he hadn’t touched in the previous six months.
I kept the shoes, knowing he wouldn’t have. Knowing he would’ve wanted me to sit on an empty stretch of beach until the tide brushed my toes. I didn’t do that either. I drove—the ocean never quite out of sight, but never close enough to touch me, either.
B. B. Garin is a writer living in Buffalo, NY, whose work has appeared in freeze frame fiction, 3rd Wednesday, Crack the Spine, Inklette, and more. She is currently a prose reader and blog contributor for The Masters Review, and continues to improve her craft at GrubStreet Writing Center, where she has developed several short fiction pieces, as well as two novels. Connect with her on Twitter @bb_garin or bbgarin.wordpress.com.