By Gabrielle Bujak
THE SMALL COVE
Mom’s yelling. I’m sitting in my chair with my arms in my lap and my report card on the table, trying my best to listen, but my ears just sorta fail, like when the power goes out and you have to wait for the old generator to heat up and turn the lights back on. She says things like “I want you to be happy” and “We need to talk about this,” and after that I sorta just give up, let the generator in my head cool down, and let the darkness settle in.
All I can make out through the darkness is how Mom’s face screws up, and her arms make wavy movements. It doesn’t feel like I’ll pass junior year. My teacher, Mrs. Aldis, said time ran out and that I’d have to stay behind again. She mentioned Mom and disappointment. I didn’t catch much else, though, ’cause my generator was sleeping by then.
But then Marina’s name kickstarts me. The lights just turn back on, and I’m there with my big body in our tiny kitchen with tiny Mom and the tiny table and the tiny chairs.
“What?” I ask.
Mom pauses before she answers. Her voice sounds less stern. “I said that I think this has to do with Marina.”
“Since October, your grades started to drop.”
I don’t think my grades dropped. I think they were always this bad. But I don’t say that out loud. It would make Mom angry. Instead, I say, “But she’s dead now.”
Mom plays with her fingers like she always does. It seems like the more I try to do what she wants and talk, the more she seems like she doesn’t wanna be near me. The jumble of it makes it harder to keep my generator on.
I wait for her to say something. Maybe she thinks I’m angry or something, but I never really get angry. I’ve seen people get angry––at least, I think. I can’t tell if Mom is angry in that tiny kitchen.
So I just stand up. Mom says my name and tries to touch my arm, but I pull on my boots. I make sure the door doesn’t slam on my way out and head into the trees. All I care ’bout is going to the small cove. That’s what Marina used to call it.
I walk into the forest. I like how the pine needles crunch under my boots and how the trees move in the wind. It smells real nice in here, too. The branches are arms, spread open like a welcome-home hug.
I walk for maybe forty minutes before I make it to the small cove. Before, I didn’t know what a cove was, so I had to ask Marina.
“It’s what this is!” She yelled. She threw back her arms and twirled ’round in circles, like those little spinners on those hats that no one really wears in real life, but little kids wear in cartoons. I just sat on the rock farthest away from the water. I didn’t like the ocean.
She stopped twirling after a minute or two.
“Hey! Why aren’t you spinning with me?” She sounded stern-like, but not stern-like like Mom when she yelled at me for grades or dirty clothes or not talking.
“The sand makes my toes itchy, and the salt doesn’t smell good.”
I remember her gasping, like some guy with a bloody mask and knife just popped up behind me. I imagined those loud noises that play in the movies, the ones when the bad guy attacks and people jump, but I laugh.
“What? You must be crazy!”
People called me stupid before, but no one ever called me crazy. It didn’t bother me, though. Crazy meant you could be violent or scary or mean, but it didn’t feel like Marina meant those things. It felt more like she was picking on me in a friend way. People were usually too scared to pick on me. It felt good to know she wasn’t scared of me.
“Come on!” she said.
Her tiny hand couldn’t even wrap ’round my wrist. She dragged me over the rocks and sand and into the shallow water. I was afraid I would hurt her if I pulled away. She was so tiny.
“Now spin! Come on! Spin!” I remember her swinging my arm ’round, trying to get me to twirl with her. “Come on! See, your boots are on, so you don’t have to get the sand in between your toes. And we’re in shallow water. We won’t go in any further, so you don’t have to taste the salt.”
The water was up past her knees. It was only halfway up my shins, but I didn’t like the feeling. My jeans were wet, and my boots were heavy. But I guess it was okay.
“But I still smell it,” I said.
The next time we met at the small cove Marina brought a mask. One like a doctor’s with the strings that wrap ’round your ears.
“Now you don’t have to smell it anymore!”
I shook my head. “It’s weird.”
She just smiled and put the mask down on a rock.“How about a bandana? Would that work?”
It reminded me of those cool bandits you see in old cowboy western-type movies. “Okay.”
So next time she brought a bandana. A cool red one. I remember putting the bandana on and taking a deep breath through my nose. “It’s okay.”
She smiled. It made me smile, too. That day, I twirled with her a few times. I didn’t twirl so good and splashed her a bit, but she laughed.
“This is great, isn’t it?” She yelled, but she sounded happy. Happy yelling. “Are you having fun?”
I remember thinking ’bout that for a bit. I didn’t know. I knew I wasn’t not having fun.
After that we met almost every day after school. I didn’t care that we stayed at the small cove. I was getting used to the salt in my nose. I didn’t mind wearing wet boots as long as I was with Marina. Mom started to bother me with questions that were sort of like lies. Not a full lie, but one of those half truths where she didn’t say what she really wanted to say.
I looked at her.
“You always come home late with your jeans and boots soaking wet. Where’ve you been going after school?”
“The small cove.”
“Oh, um. What’s that?”
“It’s this place near the ocean between two cliffs.”
“No, I mean where? I know what a cove is.”
I felt stupid when Mom said that, so I told her ’bout Marina and how Marina was new at school and how she talked to me one day and how she lived in town and how she liked the ocean and how she was tiny and how she twirled ’round a lot. Mom smiled, and it made our tiny house feel a bit bigger. Like she could breathe better, and I could breathe better.
I explained that Marina never wanted to go home, and that’s why I always got back late. Mom sorta frowned. I thought Mom was mad at me for staying out too late, but she didn’t say anything. She started playing with her fingers instead. They looked like a ball of worms, all wriggling and jumbled.
Fall went. Winter went. Spring went. My grades were better than last year’s. Still bad but not failing, so Mom left me alone.
Marina didn’t have a computer so I couldn’t message her. When it snowed or she couldn’t come, she gave me books to practice my reading. Good ones, too. Ones with cars and spies and dragons. They took me long to read, but I finished ’bout eight books in a year, which was eight more than last year. Marina even helped me memorize things for tests. I hated math, but when I got a problem right or fixed mistakes on my homework, we shared a chocolate bar or climbed a tree to take a break. Sometimes she hugged me. I started to like math.
Mom asked more questions ’bout Marina and played with her fingers. I told her how I didn’t have to wear the bandana anymore.
I explained the bandana, the salt, the doctor mask to Mom.
Mom did that weird sorta frown again.
“Why do you go if you don’t like the ocean?”
“Why can’t you go to Marina’s house?”
“I don’t know.”
“She could come here. Why don’t you invite her over tomorrow? I can make you both tacos for lunch.”
I loved tacos. I hoped Marina loved them, too.
“Okay,” I said.
But when I asked Marina, she grabbed my arm and twirled like a spinner. I copied her and twirled, too. We splashed near the rocks until it was dark.
At home, Mom asked if Marina was coming over soon.
“I don’t know.”
Mom turned off the sink and dried her hands on the towel. She kept drying and drying her hands and not looking at me. “Why don’t you know?”
“She just started spinning.”
The sorta frown got bigger.
“Well, could you try again tomorrow?”
The second time I asked Marina, I stood on the rocks. “Do you want to come to my house tomorrow?”
I tried real hard to sound polite. Maybe even a bit smart, too. I thought then maybe she would answer me. But she didn’t. I asked again before she could walk to where I was and pull me in the water.
“Do you want to come to my house tomorrow? My mom’s gonna make tacos.”
I don’t know if it made Marina mad, because she actually frowned, but not like Mom’s sorta frown. Marina looked more scared.
“Tacos sound nice, but I can’t tomorrow.” She smiled, but it didn’t look real. Her smiles were usually happy.
“Oh. How ’bout tomorrow’s tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you have to ask your mom?”
Marina shook her head. She smiled that not-happy smile, and I understood. It felt like how I talk, but never really say what I want. Marina said, “I don’t have a mom.”
“I don’t have a dad anymore.”
Marina stopped smiling that not-happy smile and looked at me. It was all sad and don’t-knows mixed together, and it made my chest hurt.
“What happened to him?” she asked.
“He died. In the ocean.”
“Oh,” she turned away and kneeled down to pick at something. I walked over and crouched down, too. She was poking a hermit crab.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I poked at the crab. “I miss him a lot. I think my mom does more. I don’t know. What happened to your mom?”
“She ran off. Before I could know her.”
“I don’t know.” Marina shrugged. The hermit crab hid in his shell.
That night, Mom asked again if Marina was coming over. I said I didn’t know. She said ask again. She wanted to meet Marina. That made sense. I’d want to meet her too if I hadn’t already.
The third time I asked when me and Marina were twirling together.
“Do you want to come to my house tomorrow?” I was getting better at saying it all polite-like and smart.
She started twirling faster.
“I don’t know.”
I stopped twirling. When I was with Marina my generator never died like it did with teachers or with Mom or with counselors. The generator was always heated up and ready. I said, “Do you wanna come, or can you come?”
She stopped twirling and looked at me with her scared frown. “I can’t.”
It took her even longer to answer this time.
“My father will say no.”
That night, Mom asked if Marina was coming. I told Mom ’bout her father. Mom sorta frowned. After that, she didn’t ask ’bout Marina coming over anymore.
Junior year came ’round. Marina was smart, so we didn’t have many classes together ’cept gym and lunch. She sat with me every day at lunch, though. We talked about old movies, and how I liked the actiony ones with funny outfits and she liked the scary ones with ghosts. We passed notes in the hallway. I drew cartoons mostly, and she wrote famous sayings. We kept going to the small cove. We kept twirling and climbing trees and sitting with our homework. She kept smiling. I smiled too sometimes.
One time, I got a C on my math test, and I was so happy I ran to the small cove to show Marina. She grabbed my hands, held the test in the air, and screamed. I screamed, too, and we kept screaming until we ran out of breath.
“If you can conquer algebra, you can conquer anything!” she yelled. She pulled me to the water and I let her, but we got a few feet in and I had to stop. She tugged at my arm, but I didn’t budge.
“Aw, come on. Let’s go for a swim!”
I shook my head. I didn’t like the ocean.
“We won’t stay in for long. You can do this, Logan. I know you can! You’ve already done so much.”
I squeezed my eyes tight and shook my head hard. She stopped tugging, but she didn’t let go.
“You really don’t like water, do you?”
I hugged myself with my one arm and kept head-shaking. I really didn’t.
“The ocean takes people away and never gives them back.”
I felt the waves smack my pants and pull back. It felt like hands grabbing at my legs and shaking me and trying to drag me in and away. The more I thought about it, the harder it got to fight the cold in my head. The generator was falling asleep.
But then I felt Marina’s fingers in my fingers. They were small and warm, and the warmth in my hand warmed the cold in my head. I opened my eyes, and Marina smiled.
“You don’t have to go, then. But maybe we can try something instead.”
She grabbed my other hand and sat down slow into the water. Waves pushed and pulled at her. Her dress and the bottom of her hair got soaked, but she kept smiling. Kept holding my hands.
“Now you try sitting down. See? It hasn’t taken me away. You’re made of stronger stuff. The ocean could never get you.”
She smiled all nice-like, and before I knew it, I was up to my belly button in water. I stared at Marina’s smile, and, for maybe a second, I thought I didn’t hate the ocean.
“See?” she said. She dropped our hands into the water real slow. “You’re okay.”
I was then, but I don’t know about now.
Now when I stand in the small cove, on the edge of the rocks, staring at the water, I try to remember Marina’s fingers, but all I remember is the day there was a terrible thunderstorm. I don’t like the ocean, but I walk in anyway. I just keep going. I don’t care about the salty sting or my heavy boots. I feel the water at my chest and the cold and my arm hugging my body and the ocean’s hands grabbing at me.
I only stop when I see two faces in the water. A bearded wrinkly face, brown eyes under that fisherman hat, the one with the neat lure thing that looked like a fuzzy caterpillar. Gray vest with all the pockets. Red plaid shirt. Fishing rod.
And next to him is Marina. Her and her smile.
She looks even smaller next to Dad. It’s weird. It’s scary. I shut my eyes real tight again and shake my head real, real hard. My feet back up.
Waves try to pull me in, but I don’t wanna go. I turn and run to shore, eyes shut. Water splashes, and that salty taste is in my nose. My jeans stick to my legs, and my boots squeak. I trip and hit my knee, but I don’t stop. I run and run and run and run, until I smell bark and leaves and pine needles poking my arms, eyes still tight. I lay on the edge of the woods, my arms still ’round my body. I didn’t know what Mom meant when she told me Dad wasn’t coming back. But when she told me Marina was gone, I figured that one out.
There was a big storm, so I stayed home. Marina wasn’t at school or the small cove after that, and a few days later Mom sat me in the kitchen, put her skinny hand on my big one, and told me Marina had drowned. Mom said something about an undertow and water currents, but I knew that it was my fault. If I was there, Marina wouldn’t have went in too far. She’d be here in the small cove and we’d be twirling like spinners and she’d be smiling and I’d be soaked and salty but warm.
I hate the ocean. It pulls people in but doesn’t push them back, and that’s scary. Real scary. But I’m not just scared. I’m angry. Angry at the ocean for taking her away. There’s something else. It feels like that hurt in my chest like when Marina looked at me all mixed up, but this hurt is hot and hurts different.
I hear footsteps. The darkness turns a weird orange that happens when a light shines on your face but your eyes are closed and weird colors show up like a painting. I hear my name and needles crunch, and then the light is gone.
Mom’s voice is close and sounds like it hurts to say my name. I still don’t open my eyes. I don’t move. I feel cold and dark and sleepy. A skinny arm wraps around my body, and I hear Mom say sorry again and again in her broken voice.
I can’t think anymore. I don’t wanna. The generator in my head tries hard to keep the lights on, but I just want to go to bed. So I turn my generator off and let the darkness stay for good.
GABRIELLE BUJAK received her BA in English from Arcadia University and currently works as a library assistant at her local public and college libraries. Her nonfiction has appeared in “Loco Mag.” In her spare time, she likes to relax with her family and overanalyze stories she stumbles across.