Four nights are gone by on the island before I begin to see you. My consciousness shudders, falls into place. It’s just dusk. We’re on the beach making sand castles.
“What did you eat? You look green,” you say. You are ten, twelve, dressed in a saggy yellow bikini and torn white T-shirt. You’re using a Big Gulp cup to make towers on your castle.
My legs crossed in front of me, torso slumped, I’m pressing down a channel of wet sand to make a moat.
My body is my body, no magical youth-ening for me. I’m skinny and dehydrated, crepe-creased, shiny with dead skin.
“I said, what did you eat?” you say.
“It was . . . a coconut,” I say. I crawl back to the tide pool and get a handful of water. It will take hours to fill the moat this way, which is good.
Because coconuts aren’t pink or sickle-shaped. Coconuts have hairy skins, not spines.
“It wasn’t the kind you get at the store, but it was a coconut. It tasted like coconut,” I say. I look up at you, but you are gone.
“The water inside them was heaven,” I say.
And there had not been one coconut; there had been dozens, and I’d spilled some of the water back out on the beach, but not all of it. Some of the water was still inside me, making me strong. The tough yellow coconut meat was inside me, making me warm. It would keep me warm all night.
Six days are gone by before I see you in the morning light. We swim together and walk the beach. I haven’t found anything new in days, but you do. You show me where to find two bottles of water, a pack of peanuts, a hairbrush.
I brush my hair for the rest of the morning, pretend it’s you doing it for me. The hair’s coated in grease and salt, sticky. You tell me it’s never looked so healthy. It’s becoming something new. I braid it and tie the braid in a complicated knot.
“Like a winsome mermaid,” you say.
You don’t come with me when I go to find food. There is plenty to eat now, the pink coconuts and something like a clam, crabs, greens if I go deeper inland. Berries I don’t dare touch.
I feel thirsty sometimes, but it’s not my body’s thirst. It’s the nostalgic kind, the thirst for a Big Gulp, thirst for an frosted glass of beer.
I pass the heap of scrub concealing your body (the nest) on my way back to the beach.
I try to avoid this place, but the island is small. I come to it from different angles, unexpected, and I jump each time. I don’t look, don’t see that your arm has dropped out of the nest, don’t see the spiders crawl across your discolored hand, don’t see how the bodies under yours have softened, shifted, spilled out. Don’t see the first showing of cracked bone.
“We were going to have such a good time,” I say, back at the beach.
“What do you mean?” you say. You’re in your twenties, svelte but awkward, doing your yoga poses. You have no balance.
“You know. Dance, hang out by the pool, maybe meet some sexy strangers,” I say.
“We didn’t ever get there?” you say. “I thought we did.”
No, you’re right. We got there, our vacation destination. We got there six or eight times in our lives. We got there. Just not this time.
“You’re right,” I say. We were lucky.
“Are lucky,” you say. You try that move with the leg outstretched behind you, arms pointed forward, and fall on your face, roll in the sand and laugh.
I never see you at night.
At night, I make up my own nest. It’s built of clothes and sand and scrub, just like yours. I think I won’t sleep—every night I think that—but sleep comes hard and quick. I wake to another warm morning, sand and spit on the side of my face.
I never see you at night until I do. It’s the other you, twisted and torn. You guide the others away from me, the group of you clawing up out of your nest. It is midnight or something like that, all of you lurching up and out and going deeper inland, away from me. Going after what, I don’t know.
I should be sleeping. I thought I was sleeping, but I wasn’t. I was watching that spot for movement. Maybe I caused you to wake with my watching.
The days are formless; I don’t know how many have gone by. You must sleep all day now. You’re never with me.
I eat what I can, but it’s getting harder to keep things down.
I stop at your nest. Animals have torn it over these nights, and some are still here, too brazen to scatter. They circle and slide underneath. I look at you for the first time, the purple and blue and the green and the pink of what lies there, the shimmery movement all wondrous like a sunset crossed by flocks of birds.
My own limbs have grown purple as yours. I am cold all the time.
You don’t come near me until you do. At midnight you claw up out of the nest and this time seem to catch my scent on the air. I see you stop and turn, you and your crew. I’ve been watching that spot. I thought I’d been sleeping.
You come to me, quicker than anything, all of you rushing over rocks and sand. You are here at my side, kneeling. The others hang back. I don’t know them. My pulse, at the sight of you, rises, then falls in a rush, like going over a waterfall. You are holding out your hand to me. You are real, and you are beautiful.