Wet-suited, amongst the sea oats, Bernard wept for his mother, wishing she would find him before the sun set upon the shore. He hoped Sally would run his way if he happened to scream, if he and his mind were to become too fearful, though screaming itself was a fearful thing, and he did not want to scream and have Sally find him. He did not want that. He wanted his wispy haired, freckle-skinned, lavender-smelling mother. So he wept, quietly, while he waited, hidden among the sea oats, looking for signs of dolphins or sharks among the lumbering waves.
His nurse, Sally, had released her hair so that it blew in the gulf wind like a red octopus full of tangled legs. Bernard had watched her trot off to a trio of nurses converged under the high fishing pier, while he sat alone in full shadow of the disappearing sun, sprayed now and then by the mist of the waves. Sally must have thought him with Mother and Granny Fern.
Mother must have thought him with Sally as she paraded the waterfront, managing wrapped parcels with one arm and Granny Fern with the other. Today, as usual, Granny smelt of whiskey, rose powder, and the sour stench of someone uninterested in bathing. Why couldn’t Sally have taken the smelly old woman shopping? As always, mustached men would be parading the boardwalk, searching for women. They would stride past Mother in thin, cream suits that crackled like paper, a sight and sound that made him clench his teeth behind the thin line drawn upon his face. Granny Fern must have been in a panic to purchase something, insisted upon getting a new this or that before leaving. It wasn’t their custom to stay this late. It was better to be home. There were no men at home to whistle at his mother as she strode past, her soft bottom jiggling under the folds of her skirt. He did not want the men to whistle at his mother. He did not want that!
Bernard waited anxiously in a bundle of sea oats and sand, sensing how slowly time passed away when one was alone. Wet-suited amongst the sea oats, he wept in fear that Sally would be the one to find him. Why the devil couldn’t she walk Granny Fern while he played bongos on Mother’s thighs, slid his fingers up and down her spotted arms and chattered about the day? The gulf before him sucked and released, released and sucked, packing ever-growing welts of shells on the tilted shore. Bernard wiped his tears and licked them off the whorls of his fingertips. He wasn’t crying anymore. He could hear the nurses’ squeals of laughter. Only a few diamond kites squiggled behind him, near the boardwalk, high in the violet sky.
The red sun began to descend, laying shadows like placemats at the table. Sally had transformed into a silhouette underneath a gray parasol. He could see them now, his mother and Granny Fern, distant cut outs scuffling their feet on the sandy boardwalk, while he existed alone, among the sea oats. He was an orange-blue crab, his skin hardening to a shell, full of calcium and minerals. He became a crab holding its clawed leg close to him, silent, his belly moving in and out like the waves.
The wind blew in great gusts. The sun sunk flame-colored into the darkening water. Far in the distance, Sally was but a speck of gray making gull-like sounds deep in her throat, as if crying or calling for him he did not know. The moon grew brighter now in the darkening sky, now that the sun had slipped almost entirely into the water. Bernard watched the quickening waves crash. The kites had vanished. He did not want to hide anymore. He stood and rushed toward the gull-like sound coming from his nurse’s shadow, until he was tucked underneath her long arm. She spoke to him, but the wind blew hard, carrying her words in another direction. When he looked down, he saw he’d been wrapped in his thick beach robe, the one that made him look all roly poly. He was a chubby catfish, his whiskers tickling Nurse’s waist. He was ruddy and sticky and smelt of butter and salt and sea creatures under his belted bathrobe, his skin damp underneath his red bathing trunks. He pushed out his belly and held his breath so long he thought he might die.
The beach was deserted. The children he had played with that afternoon were gone. The men too, were thinning out on the boardwalk, having headed into the restaurants or bars, or somewhere else. Bernard did not know. Once again, he thought he spied the blackened silhouettes of Mother with Granny Fern shuffling along, parasols and wrapped packages tucked underneath their arms.
It was a Friday. Sally had told him this. Today was the day she was paid her wages, her night off, besides. Bernard wondered if she walked the boardwalk once they left, if she met up with one of the men looking for women. She was young and pretty, though the worst frightener of anyone he knew. When she snuck behind him, she scared him into wetting himself.
Bernard pretended he had a tail, a cane, and an old, broken parasol. He imagined himself a bronze horse, like the one in the park, mounted by a freedom fighter, a cavalier with black gold-buttoned knee boots. He wanted to be home, playing with his soldiers, making war like Xerxes or Hannibal, general of the great elephants. He was tired of Sally tugging him along the boardwalk toward Mother, her own parasol drooping, limp from a day at the shore. He turned to look into the deep, wide gulf, hoping to spot a dolphin frolicking in the waves. He wondered if he would remember this day years from now, when he was all grown. He would have a job by then, and he would buy his mother a sapphire ring. He would get married and buy his wife one, too, and they’d all sit together, pushing their bellies in and out as they breathed, hand in hand upon the beach, amongst the sea oats, eyes trained on the water, bundling itself into frothy waves again and again and again and again, never ceasing.
Shannon Sweetnam is a Chicago-based fiction writer whose work has appeared most recently in Crab Orchard Review and Georgetown Review. She was a finalist for both the 2012 and 2013 SLS Summer Literary Seminars, semi-finalist for the 2012 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, winner of the 2010 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, and recipient of an Illinois Arts Council grant. She currently works as a writer at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.