Shored up with what he believes to be sound intelligence, Clay mounts his metallic-blue ten-speed, punches the code—1234—into the keypad and coasts down the drive. The garage door makes an agonizing clamor upon its descent and for this reason Clay frantically pedals away from his home. Those gears are in desperate need of a good greasing. His father, who visits on odd weekends, always remembers that he has forgotten to bring a can of WD-40 as he waits in his idling red Pontiac Fiero for the door to lift and reveal his trepidatious son slouching in the ever-diminishing shadow vehemently clutching a Star Wars-themed overnight duffle. Today, a Saturday, is not Dad’s weekend. The old man is golfing with pals.
Saturdays are busy at See You Tomorrow, the multi-purpose future-predicting one-stop-shop in the strip mall down on Atlantic Boulevard where Mom is Madame Galaxy, a reputable astrologer. She likes to check in on her son during lunch break. Clay left a note upon the kitchen counter explaining that he is biking to the beach with Jeff and won’t be home until five. Cranking like a maniac, the boy’s feathered red hair unfeathers in a gust of his own making.
Jeff actually does not factor into the plan. In fact, Jeff can just die and go to hell, as far as Clay is concerned, after yesterday’s incident on the tetherball court. At school, Clay likes to eat his lunch outside beneath the bleachers near the basketball courts with a few other ninth graders. The quickest eaters play first. Friday, as he bent down to tie his Reebok sneakers, which chronically come undone, he failed to calculate the elliptical trajectory of the tethered and mostly-deflated yellow ball. He has a C- in geometry. Which doesn’t matter. Jeff served a stinger that thwapped Clay directly in the ass and caused him to topple over into a pile of color-drained black mulch. All the pimply outcasts in line laughed. So, no Jeff this morning. No fucking Jeff ever.
Pompano Beach is a seven mile bike ride from Clay’s suburban home. A mile south of Pompano, beyond the hotels and condos and tucked into a semi-secluded cove—so he’s heard—is the nude beach. The beach itself doesn’t have a name; it’s just nude. This, according to Clay’s PE partner, Nina. Nina can sprint like a panther, do fifty chin-ups, and understands how to high-jump. She’s on the volleyball team and is a murderous spiker. Clay, at least a head shorter, has adopted a habit of standing on his toes when he is near her. His arches often ache.
Yesterday, between sit-ups in the gymnasium, Nina told Clay that Ms. Flagrant, the PE teacher, went to the nude beach on weekends. “It’s why you don’t see tan lines around her bra strap,” Nina casually explained. Though Clay spent all of warm-up time—particularly when Ms. Flagrant participated in toe-touches—staring at what the bra contained he nearly-never considered the strap lines.
“Nude beach?” he’d said, winded.
“Yup. It’s close. You can see everything. Even her mons venus.”
Clay had no idea what Nina was talking about. Dad, who did the Puberty Talk one recent awkward weekend, never said squat about mom’s planets—Venus or otherwise. And, quite frankly, he doesn’t want to think about mom’s anything. “Really?” he’d said.
“Yup,” Nina replied, nodding her head. She kept her hair in a tight coil and never let it down during school. “I’ll draw you a map. See for yourself.”
Clay is adept at zoning out. Ordinarily, when an adult is prattling on about this or that, his mouth parts slightly and his eyelids dip. Though he’ll know soon enough, he has no idea how much information his brain is sponging despite his lack of attention. Meaning: he doesn’t know what he knows. Which is why he wasn’t really paying attention to the Puberty Talk or the mandatory Sex Ed. Class (in which he received a C-). He is, then, he’s sure, a few beats behind his ninth-grade peers in the sexual-experience category. Nina drew the map on a brown-paper towel. Her looping penmanship seemed salacious and filled with promise. Where the shore bends there’s a boldly-drawn X. “That’s where you’ll find the booty,” she joked.
Though he laughed then, he’s not laughing now. His tongue is protruding slightly from chapped lips and he is gripping the map in a hand that is also wrapped around the bike’s curved handlebar. Clay is wearing his favorite tank top which has the word Thrash emblazoned in black upon the yellow-colored cotton shirt front. His freckled shoulders are shades lighter than his arms. He’s wearing his green bathing suit. There’s a striped towel draped around his neck and his sunglasses keep slipping down the bridge of his hastily-sun-screened nose. He’s two blocks away from his house before it occurs to him that he might have to get nude in order to gain access to the nude beach. Like, maybe there’s a naked security guard holding a menacing billy club denying him access unless he strips down. This possibility causes him to swerve off the sidewalk and nearly into the street.
A few months ago Clay’s mother took him to the doctor for a physical. He didn’t want her to enter the exam room with him but, once upon a time there was an incident, so unless you were eighteen you had to be accompanied by an adult. Doc, who knew the Crenshaws, made corny jokes about the solar system and flirted with Clay’s mother whom he called, Ms. Galaxy. Lots of men acted gaga around her. “It’s the red hair,” she explained to Clay one afternoon once the UPS guy finally drove away. “You’ll see.” To that, Clay had said, “Oh.” To the doctor, during the physical, he had asked, “How tall am I going to get?”
“That depends on your genes. How tall is his progenitor?” the Doc asked Mom.
“Not very,” she said with a contorted half-snort.
“Ha ha,” the Doctor said, standing up straight and twirling his stethoscope.
Clay’s inquiry about his height was a decoy. A set-up for what he really wanted to ask which was: “How big will my member get?” After cycling through an online thesaurus, surprised at how many words there were for penis—cock, chub, peter, putz, tool, johnson, prick, lizard, willy—he’d settled on member, a word he felt someone might use in a doctor’s office during a physical. He didn’t, however, have the balls—the gonads, stones, nuts, rocks, testes, family jewels—to inquire in the presence of his mother. And he didn’t know how to get her to leave. So, he slung his head low, on the paper-wrapped examining table, surrounded by herpes posters and glass containers filled with tongue depressors, and kept his trap shut. He coughed lightly when asked.
Clay suspects that his member isn’t the proper, healthy, normal size for a boy his age. The only porn he’s been able to view through the internet filter on his computer features girls. Jeff’s laptop doesn’t have filters and though his ex-friend invited Clay over to check out some hardcore shit, Clay wasn’t comfortable with that plan one iota. Sitting with Jeff in the filthy, small bedroom with the squeaky overhead fan and Jeff’s musky body odor circulating all over the place while gawking at people fucking and then maybe checking out the guy’s schlong—and schlong seems like the word they’d use in the porn industry—struck Clay as highly problematic. Like, what if he became aroused? Which was the point? How does the brain and body work in concert when his vision moves from the exposed parts of the woman to the exposed parts of the man to Jeff grinning like a lunatic and breathing heavy? Where does the eroticism begin and where does it end? Might wires get crossed; circuits shorted? Plus, those porn-guys’ wieners are probably not proportional to the general male population. Likely, they had to try out for the part. On top of all that, sometimes Clay receives spam in his email account promoting penis pumps, a concept that baffles the boy. So, yeah; forget about getting naked on the nude beach with his possibly-still-developing manhood in front of Ms. Flagrant.
When Clay decides to turn around, the loose shoelace on his left Reebok catches in the teeth of the bike chain and causes him to wobble, distracted, into the street.
One thing drivers in South Florida refuse to do is stop at stop signs. The green F-five million Ford Super-drive Mega-powered quadruple-duallied—you could hardly call it a pick-up truck, more like pick-up tank—collides with the agitated boy on the bike as he’s attempting to cross Riverside Drive. Clay and his ten-speed pinwheel into the sky. Suspended in that millisecond, it’s kind of a cool thrill. He’s flying! Maybe it’s actually not cool for a millisecond; more like a nanosecond? Or less, even. Half-heartbeat? Clay’s not sure. Though he’s been taught it, the boy is not considering Newton’s laws of motion. Force (f) = mass (m) times acceleration (a). If he remembered that every action has an equal and opposite reaction he would never think that careening through the air is cool, no matter the brief, nearly-incomprehensible time he spends soaring.
The boy awkwardly reacquaints himself with the earth. His apple-colored hair reddens from the split-skull seepage.
How was Nina to know that her little white lie re: the nude beach whereupon the resplendently-buxomed Ms. Flagrant sprawled in the buff would lead to such ill-fated consequences? You cannot rightly blame her. She wasn’t the hit-and-run driver. She didn’t twist his arm or hold a gun to his head. In fact, Nina tells herself as she does partner-less sit-ups in the gymnasium during PE, she was, if you think about it, extending Clay—an awkward boy by anyone’s account—a favor. Unlike the other freshman, who are absolutely distraught by the news that Clayton Crenshaw has slipped into a coma out of which he may or may not awaken, unlike them, she actually talked with him. Kind of even maybe liked him. He’d sometimes slip into a far-away stare when they were in Art class which enshrouded him with what you might call an air of contemplative mystery. She’d heard that his mother “read the stars” so he was bound to be at least a little deepdish. Probably he saw constellations when he gazed into the night sky.
Now, of course, since three weeks have passed and flowers have been sent on behalf of the school, fewer and fewer students are thinking about their classmate. Summer is on the horizon and the young know better than to grieve for long.
Still, though, Nina hasn’t forgotten. She nearly spilled the beans to her friend Amy the other day during volleyball practice. Almost admitted that she told Clay about the non-existent nude beach. But, so; no, she didn’t. Bit her tongue instead. The tip of which—her tongue—is protruding from her lips as she does solo sit-ups on the sweat-funky old gym mats. She wonders, since she knows she’s not going to say anything to her friend, if there’s something she can do. To help Clay. Or, at least, to make herself feel better about her microscopic (maybe even smaller) role in the unfortunate incident. Wonders so hard that she loses track of the number of sit-ups she is completing.
Life, Nina knows, is a series of hurdles. Or hoops. Hurdles or hoops over or through which she must jump. See an obstacle, address it, and conquer it. Just because you ignore a problem doesn’t mean the problem ignores you. It can fester. It—a nagging sense of guilt—has been gnashing her guts since she heard about the accident. There, now; at least she can admit it to herself. To acknowledge an itsy-bitsy crumb of responsibility. She did draw him the map. He was on the way to the beach. He is in a coma. These are facts. Maybe she’s at one-hundred and twenty sit-ups by now.
What you’re supposed to do when you are able to admit that you’ve done something wrong is do something right. You counter-activate. De-tangle. Turn the tide. Overcome inertia. Once you’ve jumped over/through the hurdle/hoop you feel better. Move forward. It’s scientific.
“Hey,” Ms. Flagrant says. “Wake up, Nina. That’s enough.”
And there it is. There they are. Ms. Flagrant is leaning, hands lightly resting atop Nina’s bony knees, her tee-shirt drooping low enough for Nina to plainly see two ample melons tucked tightly into her teacher’s fashionable black sports bra.
“Ah,” Nina says, eyes full, “right.” The pin-prick of a pre-idea scuttles up the downy hair upon the back of her neck.
Ms. Flagrant is also Coach Flagrant. She’s in charge of the girl’s volleyball team. Nina, with Amy and her other teammates, stays after school for practice every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Since she only lives a block away and her parents work until 5:30, Nina catches a ride home with Amy’s older brother Flint, a senior, who stays after for band.
Today is Friday. PE was on Wednesday. Nina’s had two days to come up with a plan. Now, as she and Amy wait atop the hood of Flint’s yellow Mitsubishi Mirage, it’s time to execute it.
“Oh shit,” Nina says, “I forgot my Algebra book. We’ve got that test on Monday. I’m going to run and get it.”
Amy is texting which is what she always does. “You can borrow mine,” she says, eyes down.
“No. I’ve got notes in the margins. It’ll just take a sec.”
“Hurry,” Amy mutters. “Flint won’t wait.”
“I will,” Nina says, already moving toward the entrance.
The gym is located in the left wing of the school. She speed-walks past a smattering of boys loitering near the trophy case toward the girls locker room where she purposefully left her textbook beneath a bench.
Coach Flagrant always showers at the school on Fridays, after the girls have gone. Fridays, she joins Ms. Roarback, Ms. Jentworth, and Ms. Kashari for Happy Hour at Ballyhoo’s and it’s just easier for her to go directly from school. Not many of the girls know about Ms. Flagrant’s habits, but Nina does. She is a people watcher.
The plan is simple: snap a shot of Ms. Flagrant in the buff, print out a copy (her father has a color printer in his office), fold it up, and send it anonymously to Clay in the hospital (without a return address). Won’t he be surprised when he wakes up? Beats daffodils and saccharine drivel inked into a Hallmark card.
Within Nina there is a space occupying an unchartered region of the occipital lobe—a place that doesn’t translate reason in a way that’s recognizable to neuroscientists—where, deep down, she believes that the photograph might actually compel Clay to open his eyes. Like, somehow, he’s waiting for Nina to complete his unfinished quest. Clay is the damsel in distress and Nina the chivalrous knight. Ms. Flagrant is like the golden chalice or fleece or whatever. She can’t remember exactly what King Arthur and the other fools were searching for and it doesn’t matter. The point is, a picture is worth a thousand words and maybe a nude one is worth more.
Nina closes the locker room door quietly. She withdraws her cellphone and arms the camera. There is the hollow splatter of water slapping tile in the shower arena. The school used to provide curtains in two stall sections for the shy girls but the plastic became moldy, the janitor removed them, and they haven’t been replaced. Flattening herself against the outside wall, Nina cranes her head—ninja-style—to see what she can see. Sure enough, there’s Ms. Flagrant all lathered, back turned, humming a tune that Nina can’t quite place. Nina zooms in and waits for Coach to turn around so that she can capture all of the goods. Flagrant bends to fetch the shampoo. She works it in like a pro, humming as she kneads. Finally, she spins. Nina snaps rapid-fire shots—click, click, click—like the paparazzi. Her heart whiplashes. Palms sweat. The tiny hairs on the nape of her neck bristle a warning that she needs to bolt, like now. Carefully, Nina retreats. She snags the Algebra book, squeezes out the door, sprints down the hall, bursts outside, and jogs to the parking lot where Amy and Flint are waiting.
Later, after dinner, in the privacy of her locked bedroom, sitting at her desk, Nina reviews the pictures. In the first shot, there’s so much steam that Ms. Flagrant’s body appears wavy. In the second shot, Coach’s eyes are half-open as she’s swiping away shampoo and she sort of resembles a zombie. Either Nina’s holding the cellphone crooked or Ms. Flagrant’s boobs are uneven because they’re lop-sided in the next shot. She’s kind of squatting, for some reason, in this one. She probably should shave those armpits. Is that a hickey or a bruise on her thigh? In the last shot her lips, mid-hum, are puckered and blubbering. She looks as erotic as a sea turtle. The pictures wouldn’t rouse a horndog from a catnap let alone a sensitive boy in a full blown coma. Plus, and, well, yeah—she should have thought of this earlier—Ms. Flagrant is in the shower not at the beach. Clay’s quest was to the mythical shore. So, this won’t work at all. She punches delete. Then, “Tomorrow” hits her. The ditty from Annie. That’s the tune Coach was humming. Nina can’t quell a pinch of embarrassment she feels for her teacher. It’s the kind of kid’s show tune she might have whistled when she was like, eight or something. She half-thinks, as she lets her hair down for bed, that she should spill the beans to Amy so they can both enjoy a hearty chuckle at the expense of their teacher. Course, how will she explain overhearing Flagrant in the shower? The question might arouse suspicion. Then Amy would call Nina a creepster. Or a lesbian. Probably best to stay tight-lipped and come up with another plan.
Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.
Fucking scientists, man. Fucking scientists.
Remember what they did to Ming?
Um. Where am I?
They killed him.
Not you. Ming. Remember?
What happened to me?
It’s boring. You got plowed. Now you’re in a coma, blah, blah, blah. You need to pay better attention.
Yeah. And you’re not alone.
Are you God?
Don’t be a moron. I’m you, you’re me; we’re we.
You’re like, my spirit?
Neurologists would say that I am a series of cognitive synapses firing. When your blood pressure drops like it’s doing now, the vagus nerve delivers blood from the heart to the semi-conscious territory in your cerebellum.
So, I’m dreaming?
Not technically. If you were asleep you’d wake up when your body was done resting. When your blood had enough oxygen. The stasis you’re in doesn’t operate like that.
Excessive brain churn. Over-stimulation. Unfinished thoughts have breached the floodgates. Questions are rising from the depth and waiting.
I want to know when I’ll wake up.
I already told you that you’re not asleep. Plus, a better question would be if you’ll regain consciousness, not when.
Hard to say. That’s what doctors told your parents when they asked.
Listen, you’re getting agitated. Let’s slow down. We’ll return to Ming in a minute. What do you last remember?
I was on my bike. Heading to the nude beach. My shoelace came undone.
Then, now. Here, with me. See if you can delve deeper.
Into the past?
When you were a kid you used to wonder where the tooth fairy took the teeth.
And why she took them.
But now you know that Mom keeps them in her jewelry box. She’s going to super-glue them to a frame with a picture of you as a baby. The one where you’re at the beach.
Pail on my head. Clutching sand. Naked but for the soggy diaper.
That’s the one. Grinning slack jaw. A pre-teeth snapshot.
All right. That’s cool if it’ll make her happy. Now what?
You ready for Ming?
Born during the Ming dynasty.
I remember. The online headline was something like, “Scientists accidently kill oldest living animal.”
Oldest known living animal. There’s a difference. In order to determine an official age, the clam had to be pried open. You have to count the rings. Scientists were too forceful.
It died because scientists were curious about its age.
That’s what the article said. Five hundred and nine years old. You found the news ironic. And then you wondered what the new oldest known living animal is but instead of looking that up…
I visited Hott Girlz Xposed.
Still don’t know how that site gets through the internet filter…
…now that Ming is dead Shakes is the oldest known living animal.
Quahog. An arctica islandica. Dredged off Newfoundland. He’s four hundred and twelve years old. Named after Shakespeare.
Everyone should. You, in particular.
Yeah. Everything is in your head.
How do I get it out?
Coax it. Bit by bit. Think it through. People want to live forever, right? These quahogs are capable of living for hundreds of years. If we can figure out how they are able to live so long, maybe we can extend our own lives.
All right. That makes sense. So, how are they able to live so long?
Scientists believe it’s their slow metabolism, but that’s not the reason. The reason, I’m afraid, doesn’t make sense.
It’s not reasonable.
True, all the same, though. And important.
Clams live off the dreams of children.
They do what, now?
They’ve got these infinitely-long microscopic tongues—invisible to humans—that shoot out of their mouth and probe the dreamscape. They can sense innocence and when they find it, always in the young, they bore into the ear canals and probe kid skulls. They gorge on pure thoughts, suck away guiltlessness, then recoil, sated, and clamp that goodness shut tight where they nest in the muck.
Um. They’re like aliens?
That’s why adults are such puny, frightened husks. They’ve been siphoned by ancient clams.
That’s hard to swallow.
Better wrap your head around it because there’s a quahog off Pompano Beach who has a taste for you right now. Ponce de Leon sailed over her, back in the day.
Can’t you feel it?
Well. I mean. My toes tingle a little.
That’s it. Wiggle those fuckers.
It takes the entire weekend for Nina to work out the specifics of her next attempt at leaping the hurdle and/or diving through the hoop in terms of procuring a nude photo and awakening Clay from his maybe-permanent slumber. Plan B isn’t as simple as Plan A. It requires great sacrifice on Nina’s part which she has convinced herself she’s willing to offer.
Recently, Amy bought her brother Flint a retractable selfie stick for his eighteenth birthday. What you do is slide your cellphone into a mechanical claw, telescope the pole, and trigger the shot. Or you can use a timer. It allows you to take full body shots, not just close-ups. Flint uses it when he plays guitar.
Monday, after practice, when Flint drops the girls off at Amy’s house (before driving to the mall where he works at Music and More), Nina says she needs to use the bathroom. It can’t wait until she walks home. Amy doesn’t care. She slumps upon the caramel-colored horsehair sofa and texts Jeff Andrews, her on-again/off-again maybe boyfriend.
Amy lives in a single-story house which resembles all the other homes in the neighborhood. Once every few years a hurricane will salsa across South Florida. It’ll huff and puff and blow shit down. The closer a building squats to the ground, the shorter it falls when a big bad storm strikes. There are pictures of sailboats adorning the walls. The floors are covered with off-white colored Spanish tiles which emit a timid squeal as Nina tip-toes down the hall.
Flint’s bedroom is across from the bathroom. Casting a furtive glance over her shoulder to make sure Amy isn’t looking, Nina sneaks into the room.
Nina has been in the bedroom before. Sometimes Flint will force Nina and Amy to sit on the unmade bed and listen to him play original songs on his acoustic guitar. Then, what he used to do is demand that someone films him so he could upload the tune on MyRiffs and wait to be discovered. Now, with the selfie stick, he can do it himself.
Flint’s got an aquarium next to his bed in which a pale-colored iguana named Rump—short for Rumpelstiltskin—dozes under a heat lamp. One of the recent topics of discussion at the Buckner residence is what’s going to happen to Rump once Flint moves to college in the fall. The parents have already said no way are they taking care of it. Amy has flat-out refused, too. The thing freaks her out with its perpetually-molting tail and the creepy sound of its reptilian nails scratching at the newspaper-lined metal pan at the bottom of the cage. The sound, she claims, makes her teeth vibrate unpleasantly. Plus, its excrement reminds her of guacamole, which is one of her favorite foods. So, if her parents try to make her watch Rump she threatened to set it free. South Floridians love to purchase exotic reptiles, keep them for a while, and then release them into the wild where they can fuck shit up. All Flint is asking is for someone to like baby-sit Rump while he’s in Gainesville. Dorms don’t allow pets. The average captive iguana can live for fifteen years, with proper care. Rump’s only three. When Flint approached Nina about it—he’d pay her to take care of it—she said, maybe. If you look at it from a certain angle Rump resembles a little prince. Nina has wondered how long she could force it to wear a purple, satin cape if she looped it around the neck.
Now, standing in the heat-lamp light, Nina doesn’t have time to consider the lizard. She has to stay focused on the plan and not wonder about the source of the stink in the room. It’s like foreign cheese or perhaps goat milk. But, though; that’s not the point. She’s here to locate the selfie stick. To borrow it, without asking, and return it before Flint realizes it’s gone.
The selfie stick is not next to the cluttered computer desk or leaning against a rickety faux-wood bookshelf. Dropping to her knees, Nina lifts the comforter and peers under the bed. No stick. There is a beach towel partially draped over a shoebox. Curious, she stretches her long arms and tugs the box to her. Inside, curled to conform to the shape of the container, is an array of Bazoombas magazines. Unable to resist, Nina flips one open. The girls assume a number of unnatural poses as they stand near a variety of props: a blonde straddles a sawhorse, a patriotic brunette is clutching a pole and waving an American flag, a cheerleader is bending low to fetch her pom-poms. All of the women are healthily endowed up top and practically bare below. For the most part, their lipsticked mouths are puckered, glistening, and partly parted. Though she would like to thumb through a few more, to get some pointers, including the Exotic Erotic Island edition, Nina is in a hurry. She crams the magazines back into the box.
The selfie stick is in the closet next to an empty guitar stand. Retracted, it’s the size of her forearm. She slides it beneath her shirt, along her spine, and tucks the handle into the back of her volleyball shorts. Then, quietly, she exits the room, slips into the bathroom, flushes the toilet—for good measure—and walks stiffly back into the living room. Amy is twirling her curly hair around her index finger and watching a video on her phone.
“Thanks,” Nina says, grabbing her backpack. “See you tomorrow.”
After dinner, dishes, homework, some computer time, and the Good Nights, Nina closes her bedroom door and slips beneath her sheets, still clothed. Her parents, like clockwork, will read in bed until ten and drift off by ten-thirty. Just to be on the safe side, Nina waits until eleven-thirty before climbing out of bed, opening her window, removing the screen, and crawling outside. Her room is right next to the air conditioner. It’s whirring like an accomplice. When she’s on the moist, tough, St. Augustine grass, she crouches low and scampers to the front of the house in her flip-flops.
The beach is only a mile away. Nina hurries along the sidewalk. The night is quiet but for a few cars on A1A. This is the second time that she has snuck out. The first time, with Amy and a few of Flint’s friends, they lit a bonfire, drank beer, and skinny-dipped. Well, Nina didn’t get naked—she stayed in her underwear—but the boys did. One kid’s bare ass was as pale as the moon. Jiggling and skimming beneath the surface of the water, tousling with his buddies, his butt looked like he was being chased by a flounder. She snickered and sucked down two grape-flavored wine coolers which she paid for in the morning. That was several months ago.
Tonight, the moon is in the sky. The beach is empty. Sand stretches horizontally to a vanishing point. Lights from a Marriott a half-mile south appear swollen in the hazy, humidity-drenched air. The lighthouse guarding the Hillsborough inlet is a dizzy Cyclops.
Nina wastes no time stripping down to nothing. She sets her clothes in a neat pile atop her flip-flops. The sand is still warm from the heat of the day. The breeze rolling off the ocean tamps down the sweat she accumulated on the walk here and momentarily prickles the flesh on her arms. She sets her phone to camera mode, clips it to the selfie stick, erects the pole, and loosens the tight bun on her head. Before getting into position, she arranges her hair in a net across her face. It’s crucial that her identity is protected. The idea is to send Clay a photograph of a naked girl, not a nude picture of herself. Only the anonymous body matters.
Nina props herself up on an elbow and gazes behind her. She can see the tiny craters where her feet made impact with the sand. Contorting her arm, she triggers a shot. Then another and another. She figures if she takes enough pictures there’s bound to be something she can use. The waves ceaselessly break in frothy phosphorescence. She rolls over, lifts her chin high, clicks away. Leans forward a bit then back, arches her legs; sort of somersaults. Does a push-up and a crunch. She dismisses the splits. Then she calls it quits. She wipes away sand before dressing.
It’s only when she’s safely back in her room, wearing her favorite pajamas—with the alternating pink and red hearts—and under the protection of her covers that she dares to look at the pictures. The first photo—delete—has a glare. In the second shot—delete—she can see an animalistic red eye. In the third picture—delete—it looks like she’s about to sneeze. She can’t believe how obvious her macaroni-shaped birthmark appears on her knee. Delete. Her bellybutton’s got a gallon of sand in it. Delete. When she’s lifting into a backbend she resembles a wobbly-kneed giraffe calf trying to find its feet. Delete. In the last shot there’s a green glow covering her two-by-four body and the glint reflecting off her teeth behind her scraggly hair makes her appear hungry. She looks more like an emaciated sea hag than a perky mermaid. Delete, delete, delete.
Nina throws the phone across the room, repulsed. She’s never hated herself as much as she does at this moment. The offending selfie stick propped against her dresser enrages. She has half-a-mind to leap from the bed and smash it over her knee. Or use it to bash out someone’s brains. Or electrify it and shove it up Clay’s ass. Wake him right up.
These things, of course, she cannot do. She curls into a ball and cocoons beneath the floral-patterned sheets. She can’t destroy Flint’s selfie stick. It needs to be returned to that dank room with the stinky iguana and the never-made bed. Oh, and what’s under the bed. Those far-fetched women. Missile-titted cartoons, really. If that’s what boys want, fuck em. Swearing, even if it’s only in her head, sort of helps. Rocking back and forth slightly calms. Nina begins to simmer. Heart rate returns to normal. Breathing evens. She wonders what Clay’s thinking about. Boobs, probably. So easy to come by. Always right in front of her.
Like everyone else, Nina has heard the advice about counting sheep as a means of falling asleep. So, she begins: one, two, three…then she imagines a tiny version of herself jumping over the sheep as they approach…four, five, six. The numbers rapidly advance. At two-hundred and thirty-nine, the sheep morph into clouds and instead of hurdling them the mini-Nina in her brain dives through. Cloud-by-cloud she leaps and counts; leaps and counts. Then, right where the fibers of a dream meet consciousness, Nina discovers Plan C.
When you groggily rise from bed early there’s a part of you that stays slumbering behind. The millisecond-ago version of you perpetually hangs back. Just as the millisecond-from-now version impatiently waits to greet you. We’re elastic rubberpeople caroming off former and future simulations of ourselves. Now is just a facsimile of the who we were/will become. The wisest among us know we’re better off staying in bed.
Except for brief sorties home to refresh, Vivian has remained seated next to her son in the small hospital room ever since Clay slipped into his coma. Today marks one month.
In the beginning, a wave of well-wishers sent sympathy cards and flowers. Viv’s sister Lilly has visited twice. Clay’s father comes every other week. He never stays long since he refuses to sit down and really detests looming over his boy trying to will him back to the land of the living. He enters the room, kisses Clay’s furrowed brow, hovers with his back to his ex-wife, leaning on his heels, listens to the whoosh and tick of the ventilators, kisses him again on the forehead, whispers something private, and leaves.
Viv nests in the navy blue chair with the anemic seat cushion. She’s slight enough to contract her entire body so that it fits in the tired piece of furniture. She’s brought a baby blanket her mother—Clay’s deceased grandmother—crocheted which she huddles beneath. Her unkempt cabernet-colored hair has been swept into a punishing pony tail. The hair is so tight it forces her eyes into unblinking walnut-colored slits. Her vision is ever-so-slightly blurry. From her hunched vantage, beneath the only window in the room (which overlooks a sun-bedazzling parking lot), she can see the starboard side of the bed which features the mostly-unblemished portion of Clay’s face. Each week doctors remove a little more of his bandages. He’s gradually transitioning from mummy back to boy.
The flowers from a bouquet sitting upon the nightstand are in various stages of decay. The principal of Pompano High School sent a sizeable glass vase brimming with lilacs, violets, and forget-me-nots. A number of students signed the “Get Well Soon,” card. Stench from the old water clogged with putrefying dead heads rises into the air conditioning zephyrs. The sweetly-briny scent blows over the boy at exact intervals (every forty-five minutes) and for precisely the same amount of time (eight minutes). It’s always seventy-two degrees in the hospital. When Clay inhales the scent into his perfectly-functioning nasal cavities the good old olfactory gives a swift kick to the hypothalamus which triggers the quasi-memory/invention of a “shadowself” or imaginary friend-of-sorts; an evolutionary micro-ego pinched in the saline of the brain. It’s an echo still reverberating from our single-cell Squirming-From-Primordial-Ooze Days.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Crenshaw,” Nurse Goldwin says, entering the hospital room. “And how are we today?” Two of Nurse Goldwin’s greatest features are her top front teeth. They are whiter than bleached bone. For this reason, she almost always smiles. And she keeps her face super-tan to enhance the contrast.
“I’m good,” Viv says, moving from a fetal to an upright position in the chair. She absent-mindedly folds the baby blanket.
“Your boy got mail!” Goldwin sing-songs. She holds a greeting-card-sized envelope up just beneath her chin so that it’s impossible to avoid those brilliant chompers. “Want me to set it on the nightstand?”
“No. I’ll take it.”
“There isn’t a return address. And there’s a note on the back which reads, For Clay Crenshaw’s eyes only. Isn’t that strange? Maybe your boy has a secret ad-mi-r-er!” The nurse does a little shimmy-shake holding the envelope and wagging her head to-and-fro.
“Thanks,” Viv says when the nurse finally hands it over. She sets the envelope in her lap and contemplates slinking back into the chair. The position isn’t comfortable and Viv likes it that way. She’s not here to sleep. Scrunched and covered her lower back aches, the wooden arms of the chair leave unsightly indentions in her calves, her shoulder blades bend, and a cinched nerve in her neck gives her a perpetual low-grade headache. Since she cannot risk curling up and spooning Clay—she’s been reprimanded for doing this and warned about the dangers of tangling ventilation tubes—all that’s really left to do is linger in mild discomfort nearby. To wait. Then wait. Wait.
“Aren’t you going to open that?”
“The card. You’re not going to wait until he opens his eyes, are you?”
“No. I’m not. Going to wait, I mean.” Viv tears the top of the envelope with fingernails flecked with maroon polish. Inside is a white, off-brand greeting card with the words I’m Sorry scripted in a carefree font meant to communicate a breezy, light, Hey, it’s not so hard to forgive, is it? style. When Viv opens the card, a folded piece of something drops into her lap. Before investigating, she reads the hand-written note neatly penned in black ink on the inside of the flap: Is this what you’re looking for? The card is unsigned.
“What is that?” Goldwin asks.
The magazine page in Viv’s lap has been folded four times. Each time she unfolds a flap the photograph of the naked woman becomes more complete, until, finally, both Viv and Goldwin—who has sidled next to the chair—can see the improbably-chested and dark-haired model propped upon an elbow inside an enormous, open clam. The picture is ripped along the edges as if torn hastily out of a nudie magazine which resides under the bed of a high school senior with a sickly iguana by a young girl surreptitiously returning a selfie stick and resorting to Plan C: send Clay a nude shot from the Exotic Erotic Island issue of Bazoombas magazine.
“Is this some kind of prank?” Goldwin asks sealing her lips in disapproval.
Viv isn’t sure. It might be. Or maybe not. Her mind is mired in a grief-stricken molasses. Since it’s difficult to blink, she stares at the picture.
The woman in the photograph has gray-green eyes the exact shade of the cloudless sky. There’s a placid sea in the background. Around her neck is a gaudy string of pearls. Though it’s impossible to tell from the photo, this is the first time that Mindy, the model, has been to Greece and the first time she has posed inside an enormous clam. The photographer wanted to pay homage to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The shell is made of a hard plastic and hurts the elbow upon which Mindy is leaning. She is battling back the pain, sucking in her stomach, and attempting to keep her lips lifted slightly in a way that resembles Venus, in the painting. The photographer, who majored in Art History, kept insisting that her mouth must appear as if she is hiding a secret from the on-looker. “Don’t you have any secrets?” he’d asked. Though she did, she couldn’t figure out how her face was supposed to suggest them. They called it quits after two hours and went with a shot that, according to the photographer, makes Mindy seem distressed. Not that it much matters. Most people who subscribe to Bazoombas don’t do so for the artistic allusions. They don’t spend a lot of time gawking at faces. Instead, eyes dart to the bountiful chest, the curve of hips, and the mile-long sculpted legs. Viv, though, traces the landscape of the body to Mindy’s feet. When she is not posing as a Greek goddess upon the tar-spotted sandy shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea, Mindy is a waitress at a seafood restaurant in Toledo, Ohio. She’s been scuttling from the kitchen to the tables in pumps for years, since she was fourteen. As a result, she has bunions. Squeezing into heels is torture. And though this isn’t a characteristic she knows she possesses, when she situates one foot atop the other, in profile, the jut from the protruding bone at the base of the big toes creates a space between her feet in the shape of an elongated heart. It’s there, in the photograph. Viv spots it right away and thinks, How curious. This is the first thought she has had in the last month that didn’t revolve around Clay.
The flame-orange painted tips of the model’s toenails are angling towards the sea. In fact, Mindy’s entire body is sort of shaped like an arrow. She is a needle within the compass of the clam. Though this, too, is impossible to know since it’s not in the photo, she is pointing the viewer toward a great mystery. She is unwittingly directing you to a fantastic treasure beyond the limitations of the glossy page. All you have to do is walk in a straight line from those posed toes. Crunch the sand and wade into the bathwater-warm shallows. Then swim. Breaststroke for two miles. You can do it. Never mind the waves. All right. Now stop. Catch your breath. Doggy paddle. Inhale. Take in a boatload of oxygen. Then, ready or not, dive. Swim straight down. Further. Deeper. Keep eyes peeled. See that faint light? The eerie blue glow? Good. Hang there, suspended in the water, cheeks puffed, hair rising. Look at what you’ve found.
The dark water resembles the night sky and bursting from the gloom appears a galaxy. In front of you a wash of countless stars swirl around a bright epicenter. Get closer. What you’ve discovered is alive. Not a star, an animal. The corkscrew of celestial neon pin-pricks are actually luminescent tendrils trailing a translucent orb. It’s turritopsis dohrnii. The immortal jellyfish. Its bioluminescence creates light to attract prey. Scientists call this jellyfish immortal because it doesn’t appear to die. Its cells don’t age, they regenerate. They transdifferentiate. The jellyfish essentially recycles itself, morphing from an immature polyp to an adult then back to the polyp and so on and so forth forever and ever. Don’t ask how. The answer will give you the bends. Just squint at it. The spectral radiance reminds you of a ghost. The hypnotic undulation is moving in rhythm to your pulse. See the red-bloom inside the bell-shaped gelatinous body? Though it looks like a heart, it’s the stomach. Though you want to reach in and grab the vibrating mass, return to shore, and thrust it into the space left by the model’s feet—you’re sure it’s a perfect match—resist the urge. Just because it’s immortal doesn’t mean it can’t die.
Besides, you don’t have the luxury of time. You have to make a decision: rise to the surface or sink into the unfathomable lurking dark. It’s up to you. We’re all waiting.