I don't believe in the "acute riptide theory" idea.
Deep down, I don't think Grandma does either.
I tug on my tie, as much as I can without someone noticing. I don't want to be disrespectful. But it itches. I'm getting used to it though. This is my eighth time having to wear it this summer.
It's my turn, so I push up on my toes to get my head above the empty coffin. I see cards, a stuffed animal, some drawings. I asked Grandma what I should throw in. I didn't know Maria as well as I knew some of the other kids. She said just throw in something that reminded me of her spirit then. So I pull the candy out of my pocket and drop it in and walk quickly away.
All the funerals have been like this. Children's coffins with no children inside. And I've only had to go to the funerals for the kids in my class. I asked Grandma if I could stop going even if the next one is a kid I knew. She says we'll cross that bridge if it comes.
She said this with an angry look on her face. But it wasn't directed at me. She won't admit it to herself, but she thinks that there will be more.
I just broke four feet tall this year, so I swim out a little further. I can see all of Morro Bay. The houses that climb up the hill above the ocean. The towers of the electrical plant. The restaurants in the tourist section. We don't usually swim near the tourists. Not because we don't like the tourists, but because that's where all the sea creatures hang out. The seals and birds like the food that the tourists throw at them.
The kids at Morro Bay Elementary generally swim here, at the beach near the sea cliffs. Our parents watch us on towels. Usually they read books. But this summer, none of them bring books. They lean forward and watch closely. And somebody's Dad is always in the water with us. There are a lot less of us in the water this summer. A lot of my friends' parents won't let them swim any longer. And the other reason is that our school only has two hundred kids in it. When twenty disappear into the ocean, it feels less crowded.
Acute riptide is what most of the parents are calling it. Nobody is allowed to swim out beyond where they can stand anymore. Maria went out too far. The ocean grabbed her and carried her away. Same with Bill, and Gretchen, and Sidney, and Marcus, and Marquisha, and Jordan, and the other kids I didn't know well.
I'm not as sad as I probably should be. I cried the first few times it happened. Grandma says I don't have to make myself cry though. That it doesn't make me a bad person.
I step a foot further back into the ocean. I can still touch the sand. But as the water rolls back and forth, sometimes my nose slips under the waterline. Grandma has her eye on me. She doesn't want me going any further out. I may though.
The night before Maria's funeral, I finally got up the nerve to ask Grandma. She tucked me in and we said our prayers and as she turned off the light I asked, "Is it a shark?"
Grandma paused at the door. I braced myself. I've lived by the ocean my whole life. My question is stupid. It's the question a tourist would ask.
"Oscar. Do you remember what I told you about sharks when you were very little?" I shake my head no. I do remember. But I want to hear her say it again. "They don't like people. They're shy. They are more scared of you than you are of them."
"But they still get hungry though," I say. I surprise myself. I didn't think I had the guts to disagree with Grandma about this.
Grandma doesn't raise her voice. As a lifelong fisherwoman, she can be loud when she wants. But she is gentle. "Sharks don't like how people taste. And hammerheads especially don't like how people taste. That's the kind of shark we get up here. And if a hammerhead even nibbled on a human, they'd spit it out. It would be like you eating dog food on accident."
Again, my boldness surprises me, and I reply, "But Andrew Infantino eats dog food."
"Who's Andrew Infantino?" Grandma asks.
"He's in my class. He likes dog food. His Mom let him eat it when he was little. And now he likes it."
Grandma doesn't respond right away. Which is strange; she always has a response. Instead of answering my question, she asks if I am sleeping with Frenchie tonight. I say no. Frenchie is sleeping in her chair. Grandma says not to be afraid of sharks and says goodnight and leaves my bedroom.
Grandma doesn't make fun of me for Frenchie. She doesn't tell anybody either. The kids in my class, especially the boys, would mock me for playing with a baby doll. But Grandma doesn't care. And she's a lot smarter than any of them.
I step another foot back. I keep my feet on the sand, but I am no longer tall enough to keep my face above the water. I hold my breath. I feel my hair wave on the surface.
I bob back up when I need to breathe. Grandma is standing now. She is not happy with me. She said she needs to be able to see me. If I do that again, she'll probably make us go home.
Something pushes me hard against my back and I tumble forward. For a moment, fear shoots down my legs. I jerk my head up and see Melanie and hear her laughing. Melanie's a jerk. But I think she has a crush on me. I pretend like she didn't scare me. But she knows she did. Her red hair hangs flat against her face and she wipes her bangs off of her freckles. She pushes me again and asks if I'm scared of her and I say no and swim away. I dislike Melanie, and not just because of this; she's loud and raises her hand first every time in class and hugs me for too long. So I don't want to swim with her right now.
I dog paddle a yard or two away. I stop to float. I look up at Grandma. She's still standing. But she's not looking at me. She's not even looking at where the kids are swimming, like the other parents. She's looking at the sea cliffs. I follow her eyes. I see what she's looking at. She's looking at that yellow house up there. On top of the cove. We've gone past it on her boat many times.
And a man stands by the house. He waves. Grandma waves back. She waves slowly though. Like she's thinking.
I float on my back. I let the waves rock me. I close my eyes. Once I almost fell asleep out here.
And then I pop my eyes open. I look to my left. And right. And behind me. There's nobody too close. But the water doesn't feel normal. It feels like it's being stirred. I've spent a lot my life out here. I know what it feels like when someone approaches you in the water. But nobody's approaching.
I lay still on top of the water. I suddenly feel like it is important that I do not move at all. The skin of my back gets very cold. The water is not deep here. But I think there is something underneath me. I hold my breath, hoping this feeling will pass very quickly. But my body jerks into standing position when I hear Melanie's mom call out her name. And I know immediately why.
"Grandma, it's not a riptide," I say on the drive back to our house. Grandma is shaking. I am not. I'm not even crying. I don't know why. "I know it's not," Grandma says. I ask if Melanie's coffin will be empty too. Grandma says it probably will.
"I think it's a shark, Grandma."
Grandma slows the car, pulls it to the side of the road. She looks over at me. "Oscar." But her face doesn't match her stern voice. I look at my lap.
"Look up at me," she says. I do. "If we only lost one child, then I could understand a shark. A shark can make a mistake. But all these children. For it to be a shark. It would have had to…have learned this hunger."
"Do you think that could happen?"
"We haven't had any reported shark bites in years." Grandma starts the car again. "But there's somewhere we need to go first." We drive forward. But we don't turn on our neighborhood street. We keep going up the hill until we're above Morro Bay and then Grandma turns down the Cliffside road. She drives over the speed limit. I look at the ocean through the treeline. Melanie is out there somewhere. One way or another.
The car stops in front of the yellow house. The one above the cove. I've never seen it from the land before. I look up at Grandma for an explanation.
"Stay put," Grandma says. She hops out and closes the door very quietly. I watch her walk to the front door of the yellow house. She looks around her in all directions before she knocks on the door. Like she's scared she'll get in trouble if anyone catches her here.
The man opens the door. I can tell by his pants that he's the same man she waved to at the beach. They speak in whispers and he opens the door wider so she can come inside. Grandma looks nervous. So does he.
I sit in the car for almost an hour. Until another car pulls up beside mine. A teenage girl. I scrunch down in my seat, not wanting her to see me. She has been crying, I can tell. Her face is puffy. Maybe she has heard about Melanie. Maybe the man who lives here helped with funerals. But I had never seen him at any of the funerals this summer.
The girl in the next car starts to get out when she sees me. She gasps. And I shriek, startled. And she quickly gets back in her car and drives away very fast. Her license plate is red. She's from Arizona. We went once. That's seven hours away.
The noise brings the man in the yellow house to the front door. He looks out at the girl's car as it speeds down the road. I hear him say a cuss word. Grandma comes up behind him. They say a few more words to each other, eye to eye. Grandma says something that seems to be important and the man nods. Grandma nods back.
Grandma drives us home. She is very, very quiet. I can't even hear her breathing.
"Why did we go to the yellow house, Grandma?" I ask. Grandma doesn't answer. "Grandma, who is that man?"
"He's a doctor." Grandma says.
"A girl parked next to our car for a minute. She was crying. Was she sick?"
Grandma exhales loudly, sadly. "Oscar, I'm going to tell you something grown-up, okay? But I need to trust you not to talk about it with your friends. Can you do that?" I nod. Grandma turns the steering wheel as we reach our street. "The man in the yellow house is a special kind of doctor. Sometimes girls and women get pregnant. But it would be a bad idea for them to have the baby."
"Why would it be a bad idea to have the baby?" I ask.
"Lot of reasons," Grandma answers. "Maybe the baby is very sick in the Mommy's tummy. Maybe the Mommy can't afford to feed the baby when it comes. Maybe the woman got pregnant against her will. And the man in the yellow house helps these women."
"How?" I ask.
"He makes the women not pregnant anymore. He makes the baby go away. But the government says he isn't allowed to help women like this. So it has to be a secret, okay? You'll keep this secret, right, Oscar?"
I nod. I think about Frenchie. "Where does he make the baby go then?"
Grandma parks the car. She lowers her head. Then she raises it. There is distress in her eyes. And that unnerves me. But her face is determined. "I think I know."
I'm not asleep when Grandma opens the door to my room. She's very quiet about it. She doesn't want to wake me. So I stay still. I peer at her under my eyelids.
Grandma tiptoes to Frenchie's chair. And she picks Frenchie up. And carries her out of the room. Grandma doesn't shut the door all of the way, so that it won't click. I hear her go downstairs. I hear her rummage around in the kitchen.
I don't know what Grandma is doing with Frenchie. I feel antsy. But I don't want to get in trouble either.
I slip out of bed and creak my bedroom door open. I tiptoe to the top of the stairs and freeze as Grandma walks across the hall to the garage. Holding Frenchie. I scoot backwards, knowing I won't get away with being that visible again. I hear the car door shut. And then Grandma comes back inside and walks towards the mudroom, where she keeps her fishing gear. I hear her fussing with it down there.
She's fishing? In the middle of the night? Grandma is not a night owl. And I don't want her to go out on the ocean alone.
I sneak down the stairs. I tiptoe to the door leading into the garage, and I quietly open it. I slip into the dark of the garage and feel for the car and find it. I pop open the back door and climb inside. I touch Frenchie immediately. But I resist the urge to hug her. I let her stay where she is on the back seat and I curl up on the floor below her.
I'm pretty well hidden for now, not if Grandma turns the car light on. I reach around for Grandma's beach towel and find it scrunched up against the other door. I cover myself with it. And then I hear the garage door open and Grandma walk out.
I can't see anything, hidden under the beach towel. But I can tell two things. Grandma's wearing her fishing boots. I know that sound. And she's carrying a chum bucket. I can hear it rattling on its handle. I hear her set it on the floor of the car, passenger side. And then I just hear the sound of her breathing as she turns on the car.
We drive for about fifteen minutes. I try to guess where we are, but I don't really recognize the route. We aren't headed to the dock, which is what I expected.
Grandma parks. She gets out. She flings open the backdoor and I stay very still. I think about what my excuse will be when she figures out I'm in here, and I feel her body not far above mine as she grabs Frenchie off the seat. But she doesn't investigate the towel on the floor. I hear her grab the chum bucket; it clangs above my neck. And then she shuts the door and I hear her walk away.
Her footsteps grow quiet, and then stop. And then I hear knocking on wood.
We're back at the yellow house.
And sure enough, I hear a door open and I hear the man's voice and then the door closes again.
I wait in the dark. I listen to the wind coming off the ocean, rushing up the cliffs behind the house. I picture the cove. I picture how tall the house looks when you're staring up at it from the water down there.
The door to the house opens and I hear Grandma's boots approach the car again. I hear the bucket. I hold my breath as she puts everything back inside the car. Frenchie. The chum bucket. A new smell fills the car. It's nasty. I try not to gag. The smell of gutted fish doesn't bother me. This is not that smell. This smells like that time Melanie found a used tampon on the playground and waved it in my face.
I think of Melanie. And I cry. I clamp my teeth down on the towel so Grandma won't hear me. I only stop crying when we reach the dock.
In the darkness above me, Grandma grabs Frenchie. She grabs the bucket. I tense up, afraid she'll grab the towel too. But she doesn't. She shuts the door and walks away. And I know she's heading for her boat.
I will be in so much trouble for doing this. But Grandma should not be out on a boat alone at night. And why did she steal Frenchie? And why did we go to the doctor's house?
I know what I need to do. I will wait until I hear the motor start. She will be facing the sea. She will be untying the last buoy.
The motor starts. I get out of the car. I dash silently down the dock. There she is. Facing west. The moon illuminating her shape. She holds my doll in one hand, the bucket in the other. I wait for the boat to rock backwards, to cover the impact of my getting on board, and then I climb gently onto the rear of the boat. I slip under the rear bench. Grandma sets the bucket down a few feet in front of me and we pull away from the land.
I peer around the boat. I realize that she didn't bring any of her fishing gear. I have heard of grown-ups becoming so sad that they drive their boats out to sea and never return. The thought of Grandma doing this makes my eyes tear up again.
Grandma steers us along the shore. We pass the beach. We go over the water where Melanie probably died. And then we approach the cliffs. We head towards the yellow house.
Grandma takes us all the way into the cove below the yellow house. And then she stands right above me and I curl my fingers tight so she won't step on them. She kills the engine.
Grandma walks back to the front of the boat. She stands still for a moment. I breathe through my nose. And then Grandma empties the chum bucket into the sea. I smell it again; I smell it a lot. Whatever she has in that bucket, it's not any chum I know.
It's something that doctor gave her.
Grandma turns around. I stay as still as I can. She grabs Frenchie. And she drops Frenchie into the water.
I try not to gasp aloud. Frenchie bobs along the side of the boat. She floats towards me and Grandma watches her go. I bite my bottom lip. Why would Grandma do that? Frenchie is my favorite. I take care of her! I stand up in the boat. As high as I dare. And I reach out my hand to grab Frenchie back.
Grandma sees me. The sight of me frightens her and she screams and the boat rocks and I reach for Frenchie. And I fall. I fall out of the boat. I clutch Frenchie to my chest as my head goes under the water.
I'm a very good swimmer. Being in the water, even at night, doesn't scare me. But as my head breaches the surface again, I know that I should not be in the water right now. I see Grandma's shape against the moonlight hunched over in the boat.
Grandma yells, with a fear in her voice that I have never heard before, "Get the fuck back in the boat!"
The skin of my back goes cold again. I no longer wish to swim. I no longer wish for this moment to be real, and so I stay where I am. I just paddle my feet. That's all I want to do right now. Just paddle my feet. Like in my swim classes when I was very little.
I feel something brush my cheek in the water. I can tell from the smell that it's the chum. I close my mouth tight so that it won't drift inside.
I hear another splash.
Grandma is in the water with me. Her arms wrap around me in the dark. I stop paddling my feet. I hang onto Frenchie and Grandma hangs onto me and she pulls us around to the back of the boat. I make no sounds as Grandma frantically unlatches the ladder at the back of the boat. The water below us is stirring. Perhaps four feet below. I look downwards as Grandma jerks the ladder loose. I can see nothing through the commotion on the surface. But I can feel it. There is a new current. It jerks left, then right.
"Grandma," I say.
And Grandma clutches the ladder and hoists me into the air. Suddenly my entire body is raised above the water and I feel newly cold and wet and I see my arms in the moonlight wrapped around my doll. I look at Frenchie. Her head. It's on backwards. Grandma took Frenchie's head off. And put it back on. She must have.
This is the thought I have as the teeth pierce my lingering ankle and I fly downwards, out of the night air, out of Grandma's hands, and under the water.
I soar into the dark. I feel no pain. Just terror. Sudden, howling terror. My hair grasps upwards towards the surface.
I hold Frenchie. I will keep her safe. We fly away from the boat, from the cove.
The dorsal fin rises up against my face, close enough that I can make it out in the blackening water, and I close my eyes.
The teeth release my foot.
The water swirls around me.
I clutch Frenchie harder. And as I tighten my arms, barbs enter their skin. All up and down them. Now I feel the pain. It's like a hot, metal inkpen, drawing a line across me. I feel my forearms leave my body and with them Frenchie and the thrashing continues and the water gets suddenly warm around me.
It smacks into me again; its skin is like moss.
And then I feel nothing. Nothing near me, nothing against me, nothing eating me. And I am almost out of breath anyway and wonder if Melanie will be there when I am dead. But I kick. I paddle with my feet. And the water brightens a little. I paddle more. I reach the surface. I am out to sea. But I see the light from the yellow house in the distance. And so I scream. And an engine roars. And I kick my feet to stay upright. A wave sweeps me forward, but I stay up. And then Grandma is there. And suddenly I am back in the boat. And we drive away.
My classmates visit me in the hospital. One of them calls me "two-hooks" and I like it and it sticks.
Grandma learns to sleep upright in a chair. She never leaves my hospital room. Not once.
No more kids disappear this summer. Melanie is the last.
It may not be dead. Whatever poison Grandma put inside Frenchie, it may not have been enough to kill it.
But it was enough to put it off the taste.
This comforts me, but only a little. After all, even I'm going to swim again. Once enough time passes.