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No matter what people tell you, Naomi’s daughter never died. The sea simply swallowed her up, girl and boat all at once, like a gulp of fizzing seltzer, and refused to spit her back out. So, the morning after The Accident, Naomi grabbed her rusted fishing rod and stormed through shanty-town, past the houses that groaned and creaked like old men, past the Burger King and the gas station and the surf store which was shaped like a whale. Her naked feet burned against the pavement; in her haste, she’d forgotten shoes.
When she found the ocean, it was blushing an innocent green and toying with clamshells.
“Give me back my daughter,” Naomi said in the stern, low voice she only used for husbands, children, and stray dogs.
The ocean spat at her feet.
“Have it your way,” she said.
She pulled back her fishing rod with her strong brown arms and whipped the line out into the water.
“If I catch her by sunset,” she told the ocean, “you’ll return her to me."
She propped the rod between her feet; she looked out over the water. Then, she waited.
The women of Naomi’s family were gifted with strength. Her grandmother, a little woman with a crippled foot, had lifted a tree to save her youngest son; her mother, nearsighted and diabetic, had built a house with her bare hands after her husband’s death; Naomi had outlived three hurricanes and two husbands by sheer force of will. Only her daughter was exempt—the gift had passed over her head like a fog.
But Naomi didn’t linger long in the sand. Head spinning, she sat up. She rubbed her aching arms and squinted at the ocean. Something large and dark was stretched out on the beach. A shark? An eel? She eased herself to her feet, wincing, and reached for her fishing rod. She poked at the lump from a distance. What had the ocean given her?
Naomi’s daughter was a long-limbed girl who swayed like a palm tree in the wind. Sometimes she wanted to be an astronaut—other times, a nun. By the time she was sixteen, she’d fallen in love with ten boys, three of whom she’d never met. She came and went with the tides, disappearing for hours in a beat-up dinghy, then slipping in the back door at midnight and smiling an apology through sunburnt cheeks. The afternoon of The Accident had been like any other: she’d waved her happy “Bye, Mama,” and chased the seagulls down to the beach. Naomi had waved, too. She’d waved: bye, bye, bye.
Naomi felt a tug on the end of her fishing rod. She pulled hard and fast. Whatever she’d caught, it was heavy—the muscles in her arms bulged and clenched, and the line pulled tight enough to snap. She wrestled with her catch until the sun was high and boiling in the sky. Then, just as her bones were about to give way, the line went slack, and Naomi tumbled to the sand. The ocean simmered.
Suddenly, the lump lurched. Pink fingers wriggled out from beneath a bird’s nest of hair; two eyes appeared, along with straight white teeth. Naomi’s heart drummed an unsteady beat. But when the girl—for that was what it was—faced her, her stomach plummeted. This was not her daughter.
“You gave me the wrong one,” she told the ocean.
A wave rolled up like a shoulder shrug. What was the difference between one girl and another?
“I want my daughter,” said Naomi.
She gripped her fishing rod with both hands and tossed the line out. The tide crawled away; the sun tipped past noon; sweat dropped from her nose to her lips. Then, she felt a hard and sudden tug. She cranked the rod, reeled in her catch—another girl. This one was blonde and squat and freckled. Not her daughter.
“Mine has a crooked nose, if it helps,” she snapped to the ocean, who ignored her.
Three more times she tossed out the line; three more times she caught a girl, none of them her daughter. The girls just sat on the beach, blinking and silent, watching Naomi with salt-rimmed eyes.
“Have any of you seen my daughter?” she asked them.
The girls glanced at each other. Then, all at once, they began to scream.
Naomi panicked. She cast her line, catching girl after girl until there were piles of them, soaked and slippery, littering the beach. She checked their eyes; she felt their hands. None of them were her daughter. Finally, as the latest curly-haired addition flopped to the sand, the tangerine sun slipped out of sight, plunging the beach into a bruise-colored dusk.
“Please,” cried Naomi. “I’ll do anything, anything you want. Just give me back my daughter.”
The ocean chose to look like a grandmother. She appeared before Naomi without a sound, small-eyed and wrinkled, and sat cross-legged on a mound of seaweed. She pinched sand-crabs in her fingertips and crunched them between her teeth.
“Anything, you say?”
“Well then.” The ocean stood, brushing sand from her lap. “An exchange. Your life for hers.”
“Done,” said Naomi.
The ocean tsked. “On one condition. The exchange must be made willingly.”
“Fine. Now bring her to me.”
The ocean laughed; it sounded like waves crashing. In that moment, she looked like a child with black curls and an underbite. But the tide ebbed and the waves bowed, and suddenly a girl stood in the moonlight, dripping seafoam. Naomi didn’t have to ask; she ran to the girl and gripped her to her chest.
Naomi didn’t hear the screaming; she felt it. It spread through her ears, rattled in her ribs, bounced around her skull. She dropped to her knees and clamped her hands to her head, sobbing soundlessly. What were they shrieking? The words were disjointed, unfinished: lo, aloe, alone—car, scar, scared. But soon, the words bled together, and they were the same word: mother, mother, MOTHER.
“Enough,” begged Naomi. “Enough, enough!”
The girls shut their mouths. The screaming stopped.
Naomi said, “You can’t speak?”
The girls shook their wet heads.
“Are you—“ She didn’t know how to phrase it. “Dead?”
“Do you know where my daughter is?”
They pointed to the sea.
Meanwhile, the ocean bubbled with laughter, and the sun sagged down toward the horizon.
“Mama?” said the girl, voice trembling. “What have you done?”
Naomi’s smile wavered. “I saved you.”
The girl shook her head. “No, Mama, no. This isn’t what I want.”
“You don’t know what you want. All of this was a terrible accident.”
She tugged her daughter’s hands, but she pulled them away.
“It wasn’t an accident. I was running from you.”
Silence. The ocean giggled to herself, burying her toes in the sand.
Naomi’s daughter sighed. “You don’t remember.”
“Of course I remember,” said Naomi. “You left in your boat, and I waved to you.”
“We argued, Mama. We argued, and you shouted at me, and you told me I had to go to school, or get a job, get married, something stable and good. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran. I chose the sea.”
“You didn’t choose anything. You were stolen.”
“And what if I wanted to be stolen?”
“I dreamed about you,” said Naomi.
“I know,” said her daughter.
“You were swimming and smiling. Then, all of a sudden, you were drowning. You tried to scream, but no sound came out, and I wondered: what’s the difference? What’s the difference between swimming and drowning?”
“Mama, look at me. Just look at me, please.”
But Naomi wasn’t listening. She pointed to the girls on the beach. “Look at them. They’re terrified. They’re miserable. That’s what you want?”
“They’re not sad, Mama. They’re angry.”
For the first time, Naomi saw the girls she’d caught—she saw their mouths, bared and fanged.
“Come with me,” she rasped. The words she wanted to say stuck in her throat.
Her daughter shook her head. “I can’t.”
The sea grinned in the dark.
“You’ve broken the rules,” she sang.
So Naomi’s daughter began to sink. Her toes turned to saltwater, then her feet, then her ankles. She bled into the ocean while Naomi struggled to catch her, to hold her in cupped palms, to make it stop, stop, stop.
“Forgive me,” said Naomi. “Forgive me.”
Naomi’s daughter cried silent, salty tears, and smiled, dissolving into bubbles.
For a while, Naomi sat in the sand. The waves caressed her knees. She swatted them away. Then she stood, and one by one, she tossed the girls into the ocean. Long after they were gone, she heard them calling: mother, mother, mother.
Katie James (@katerosejames) is an incoming freshman at Cornell University’s school of Art, Architecture, and Planning. She hopes to become a Broadway set designer one day, but also experiments with painting, illustration, and multimedia art. Outside of school, she’s equally addicted to both Shakespeare and Ed Sheeran.
Cassy James (@authorznote) is a sophomore at Princeton University studying English with certificates in Creative Writing, Theater, and Music Theater. Her work has been published in The Nassau Literary Review, Figments, and Here and There Magazine, among others. She’s obsessed with Disney, avocados, and all things Broadway.