Nighttime and the ocean goes on forever, farther than Helena can see, big and hungry and terrifying. When she flew with Tomas and Maggie to Canada it was night but she kept her window closed; she couldn’t see, she didn’t know.
Sarah, jacket and jeans in a pile on the sand, out so deep she’s just a head of dark hair bobbing in the water. She’s going to drown. Helena doesn’t know how drowning works, only your body stops holding you up, only you sink, only all your blood becomes water and it fills you all the way up and if Helena turns her back on the ocean for a second it’s going to eat Sarah alive. She knows it: she’s also been hungry, she understands.
She sits in the sand and drags her feet back and forth through it and watches Sarah bobbing. Moonlight tangles up in Sarah’s hair, so thick that it seems like Sarah could wash it out later. As soon as Helena thinks this Sarah has turned around and is watching her; the light curves off her face, but she’s so deep Helena can’t make her features out.
“You coming in or what?” Sarah yells.
“What,” Helena yells back.
“I said you coming in?” Sarah yells.
“I know,” Helena yells. “I said no.”
Sarah vanishes under the surface of the water and Helena staggers one, two steps closer – stumbles – dances back – and there’s Sarah, resurfacing, hopping her way out of the water. Her tanktop is stuck to her body and she looks so cold. Jacket on the sand. Helena on the sand.
“Why not?” Sarah says, the ocean twining seaweed around her ankles.
“I can’t swim,” Helena says.
“Oh,” Sarah says. The tide sounds like whispering; it’s a big whispering mouth, wrapping Sarah up in chains. I did that first, Helena wants to tell it. Its hunger could eat her hunger alive. She hates it, but that seems stupid. She’s scared of it, and that doesn’t seem stupid at all.
But: Sarah’s hand on her hand, cold from water and stiff from salt. “You gotta learn sometime,” she says.
“Some time,” Helena echoes. These are words that mean not now.
Sarah steps out of the seaweed lightly and takes another step back. Helena could follow her. Helena can’t follow her. Helena is folding sestra Alison’s sweater up neat and pulling off her boots, her jeans, she’s following Sarah into the water. The only real thing in the world is Sarah’s hand holding her hand.
“Sarah,” Helena says.
“It’s fine,” Sarah says. “You’re alright, yeah? Not even up to your knees yet.”
She’s lying, it’s there now. It knows her. In and out, it pushes at her, it pulls her back in. Sarah’s hand feels warm now, because the water is so cold. Helena can tell she’s holding too tightly – her fingernails are leaving marks in Sarah’s skin. Sarah doesn’t let go. It must hurt, but Sarah doesn’t let go. The water is up to Helena’s hips, now, and Sarah is ahead of her so it’s deeper for her. Sarah vanishing. Sarah holding Helena’s hand, Sarah leaving her.
“Sarah,” Helena says again. Sarah stops. Sarah’s hand in Helena’s hand is real. Nothing else is real, because Sarah vanishes at the waist, because Helena loses her to dark water. Helena can’t feel her legs the way she should be able to. The moonlight is on her skin and it isn’t sticky and it doesn’t feel like liquid – but Sarah’s hand is real, because Helena is holding it.
“I’m not gonna let anything happen to you,” Sarah says. The ocean slaps at the small of her back, and she doesn’t flinch. Helena can’t read her eyes right in the dark; she believes in it anyways.
“I don’t like it,” she says helplessly.
“It’s okay,” Sarah says. She takes another step back. “You’re okay,” she says.
“I don’t like it,” Helena says, and she takes another step forward. They keep going deeper. Helena’s feet leave the sand and the water is up to her chest and her feet leave the sand and Sarah’s hand in her hand, that’s real. That’s real, it’s real, it’s real.
She makes a noise in the back of her throat, the water is up to her chest, Sarah’s hand leaves her hand, Sarah’s hand leaves her hand and settles on her shoulder. “I don’t like it,” Helena says. “Sarah, I don’t like it.”
“Shh,” Sarah says, and Helena goes quiet. The sea says: shh. This deep in her body forgets that it was supposed to be cold. Everything is so quiet: the sound of the ocean breathing, and Helena breathing, and Sarah breathing. The water spits salt into Helena’s mouth and she sputters and then starts laughing, helplessly. Salt. What a strange thing for water to be.
Sarah’s grinning at her, like she’s done something right. “You wanna learn to swim?” she says.
Helen doesn’t answer. She’s preoccupied: when she slips off her feet the ocean catches her for a moment before it lets her go again. It feels like the way Maggie and Tomas promised her flying would be. Helena closed her window on the plane and she didn’t know: if she jumps, the ocean catches her. Every time the ocean catches her. When she jumps at the right time she meets a wave and oh is it like flying.
Sarah isn’t saying anything. Helena watches her, Sarah, somehow perfectly still in the water. She’s so used to Sarah running, and Sarah moving, but here the ocean keeps running forwards forwards always and Sarah is managing to stay still. Helena flies back over to Sarah and says, eager: “Yes.”
Sarah shows her how to move her arms through the water, the way that if she jumps and kicks and holds she never has to let her feet touch the bottom again. Helena splashes desperately in circles, and the ocean catches her, and Sarah doesn’t let her drown. She promised, she did, and it’s true: nothing is happening but this, flying.
She lies on her back and watches the stars. Sarah bobs up and down next to her, foot touching bottom only to propel herself up again. The water doesn’t feel cold anymore, and Helena doesn’t tell Sarah that in case Sarah makes them leave it behind.
“S took us to the beach, once,” Sarah says quietly. “Took forever by train. Wasn’t like this, it was loud, all these kids with their toys that we couldn’t afford.” Shh, the ocean says, shh, but Sarah keeps talking anyways. “S wouldn’t teach me to swim so I just ran in and this huge wave hit me. Knocked me right down, it was like—” She stops talking. Helena puts her hands palm-down in the water and the ocean holds them. Helena tilts her head to the side and holds Sarah in her eyes. Sarah watches the water.
“I didn’t know anything,” she says quietly. “Couldn’t see, couldn’t – couldn’t stand, didn’t know where I was. Then suddenly I was out on the sand and it was done and there was water up my nose and I was crying ‘cause I was so bloody terrified. I wouldn’t go back in. Everything tasted like salt.”
Helena flips herself off of her back and back down into the water. She reaches out and holds Sarah’s hand. Sarah’s fingers take a second but they’re laced with Helena’s, and Sarah is smiling at her. It’s too small for Helena to give it a feeling or a name, but it’s there. Just at the corner.
“How’s it feel?” Sarah says.
“Big,” Helena says. Sarah lets out a breath through her nose and her smile gets bigger.
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah.” She reaches out her other hand and grabs Helena’s hand and they’re floating there in the water, hands laced together, kicking to keep their heads above the surface.