Sometimes, by accident, we get a little lost along the way.
Hush, hush. The waves rolled in and out again, slow and steady; out of range, dry sand stirred at the occasional sudden sharp breeze then subsided. Any footprints left behind from the day’s revelers had long since been smoothed away, by wind or water or both. Other than the occasional cooling gust, everything was still and heavy; the humidity hung like a damp heavy blanket.
Further away from shore, the waves smoothed out until the surface was smooth and still as glass. Under the yellow eye of the moon, the waters were deep, deep, violet.
Someone took a deep breath.
In the earliest part of morning, the light is gray and strange; lines become blurred and soft, in and out of focus between one second and the next. Even on the hottest days, the heat dies down for just a moment, just a short breath of time, and things will be as cool as they ever get for that day. There’s a liminality to early mornings.
And so of course it was early morning when the girl wandered into the 24 hour MinitMart, barefoot and shaking, her dress torn.
“Please,” she said, “help me.”
And without another word, she collapsed.
“Her vitals seem fine,” said Dr. Andersen, who frowned down at the clipboard in his hand. He had a phone wedged between his ear and shoulder. “If you just looked at her numbers everyone would be normal. Great, even. It’s just…”
Maria, who worked on the janitorial staff and had watched the stranger brought in, held her breath and lingered. She did not prompt. Dr. Andersen was a busy man. He tended to only noticed janitors in their absence.
“It’s just the damndest thing,” Dr. Andersen said at last. “Every time we tried to draw blood, we got seawater instead.”
Later that night, after visiting hours passed and the hospital’s halls had gone mostly quiet, Maria tiptoed down to the stranger’s room. She’d gotten off shift hours ago, and she’d returned under the pretense of having forgotten a hat. No one questioned her; no one was there to see her.
She knocked once, gently, and waited. She felt tremendously silly about this, and every second ticking past only increased her anxiety. What if someone found her? What if the girl reported her? What if–
But then a voice, soft and rolling as waves over the beach, said, “Please come in.”
The unnamed girl had both very pale skin and very dark hair, though her lips were pink instead of red and thus did not quite finish with the Snow White comparison.
Maria did not care. Maria could not stop staring, especially at the way all light, not just romantic moonlight, made her glow like something straight out of a fairytale. She stood unmoving for a few seconds, then forced herself to close the door behind her as she stepped inside.
The girl’s eyes were as dark as her hair. They seemed to be mostly pupil, too-large in her narrow face. Her nose was small and pinched, her lips a tight pucker. As Maria approached, she held out both hands, palms up, and Maria took them without thinking. The girl’s fingers were warm and soft; all of their tips were slightly wrinkled.
“Please help me,” she said.
“How do I do that?”
“I have to go home,” the girl said. “I got turned around. Coming here was a mistake. I am not sick. I’m not hurt! I was only tired, and I made a mistake.”
“But I don’t know what to–”
“Please,” said the girl quietly, “I want to go home.”
As a child, whenever Maria misbehaved, she would rush to her grandmother to cry, guilty for upsetting her father and resentful of his punishment. Her grandmother would stroke her hair and sigh.
“Your father worries,” she would say. “He loves you too much to want you to find trouble.”
As an adult, Maria lived quietly, never standing out and avoiding trouble. Life slipped her by. Even everyday workplace drama seemed to happen around, not to, her.
I’m sorry, Papa, she thought, as she put her coat over the girl’s head. But I think this is the better thing to do.
The ocean at night was wide and dark, restless under the wind. The sands kicked up by Maria’s clumsy footsteps were cold and damp. The girl, meanwhile, was barefoot, and she barely left any mark in her wake. She clutched Maria’s coat with shaking white fingers. Her eyes remained downcast, her expression lost.
As soon as they passed some invisible line, though, she seemed to come to life. Her head lifted, her eyes widened, and her thin mouth pulled into a smile. She took Maria’s arm.
“There.” She pointed, out to the wide expanse of water. “There it is. Home.”
Everything happened slowly and all at once.
As the girl spoke, a wave rose up from the waters, gaining height and momentum as it approached the shore; before long it was taller than a human, taller than a building. Maria, who had only lived on the beach for five years and sometimes had nightmares about tsunami, remained frozen.
The girl smiled, then reached out to stroke her fingers gently against Maria’s cheek. She left wet smears with the touch.
(Later, Maria would look at herself in the mirror and see pink marks, and those would not fade for weeks.)
“You have been so kind to me,” the girl said. “I’ll remember.”
The wave crashed down. Maria screamed, or perhaps only thought she did. She struggled, kicking arms and legs. When she forced her eyes open against stinging salt, she saw the girl fading away. Dissolving.
“Like foam upon the waves.” Where had she heard that before?
Water struck her chest like a blow and everything went dark.
Maria woke on a dark quiet beach. A fine layer of sand coated her.
She sat up and looked out at the deep, deep, violet waters, under the yellow eye of the moon.