Editor Note: This essay is an adaptation from a young adult novel. It is one of many dangerous adventures the heroine, Sammy, confronts in coming of age as an early teen.
8:00 AM, Tuesday, Loon-Song Drive, Orcas Island Washington — The Boys head to the beach.
Freddy’s head poked under the dash. “Stupid,” he mumbled. “Ol’man Sanderson just a fool. Let this beautiful ride go to waste.” He yanked at wires. “The Captain, he smart. Pay us four hundred dollars to kill seals.” Freddy joined the wires, they sparked and the rackety old Pontiac, held together by rust, moaned to life.
Headlights tracked a single dotted line under a branched canopy of coastal pine. Freddy swerved to hit a rabbit who skittered in front of him, but missed. The heavy car slid sideways around a corner and stopped by a cedar shake cabin pushed back from the road. Zach ran low across the garden.
“What the…?” Zach said, as he hopped in. Freddy gunned the engine. The door slammed shut and Zach’s head banged against the headrest as the tires spit gravel and dust.
“Where’d you get this, man?”
“Borrowed it, dude. Nasty huh?”
“Crazy-Rasty-Nasty.” Freddy put his hand out for a low-five.
“Yeah crazy. Where’d you get this, seriously?”
“Spoke with the Captain.” Freddy said. “We been hired to kill those salmon-poaching seals.”
Zach’s mind searched between crazy and kill. “What’s he going to pay?”
“He offered two-hundred.”
Zach’s forehead scrunched.
“But I talked him up to three-hundred.” Freddy added. “We split it fifty-fifty.”
“One-fifty each?” Zach’s eyebrows rose.
“Yeah, man. You get one-fifty for sticking a few seals. We’re partners, right?”
Freddy slapped the steering wheel and pushed on the accelerator. “This be great. Let’s go get rid of some seals.”
“One-fifty,” Zach mumbled to himself. “I can do this.”
10:04 AM, Deer Harbor, Orcas Island Washington — Samantha on the beach.
A boatload of people showed up shortly after I arrived. The swim-hole near the dock was slammed. No worries. I moved further down towards the old fishing dock.
My toes slipped through the smooth soft sand as I wandered down the beach. The fishing dock wasn’t far, maybe ten minutes. Just far enough to be alone, away from questions. “Are you okay?” People ask, as if I’m supposed to have some kind of answer. “Fine, I’m fine,” I say, but I’m not fine, or good, or even okay — I’m nothing. What am I supposed to be? She’s gone, I can’t change that.
Further along were small smooth rocks. A kick sent them rolling. One bumped a tiny hermit crab that bounced like a ball. “I’m sorry little one,” I said as I gently picked her up in my palm. She didn’t respond, but after a while her tiny legs stretched out. “Dark in there?” I asked. She disappeared. She’s alone too and gets along fine, I thought, but I wished I didn’t have the nightmares.
A wave washed up and my heels sunk in the cold wet sand. I imagined I was dropping into a hole so deep no one would ever find me. I could only stand still for a moment. The thought of darkness still scares me — like my dreams. In them, I can’t see. I wake up sweating and sometimes I hear myself scream. The nightmare is a different kind of alone. Not an alone I can explain. Not like on the beach.
The surf rolled over rocks near the rotting dock sending plumes of spray in the air. Further out, a blue hulled sailboat lay in the surf; its sail fluttered helplessly. Anchored in shallow water, it stuck in the sand when the tide went out. Tourists. You’re going nowhere until the tide changes.
As the boat rolled in the foamy swells, two guys climb on the dock from down in the rocks. I glanced back. A car sat in the lot, parked half-way on the sand. The passenger door was open and moved with the wind. I crouched down on the sand thinking they might not see me. How stupid was that? My skin prickled. I pulled my knees to my chest. Stay real still. They knelt on the dock. One looked around while the other, with his back to me, pounded on something.
The beach was empty except for those two guys. The Deer Harbor swim area wasn’t too far. I could hear kids playing in the water and parents laughing. If I yelled loud enough, I figured they’d probably hear me. My fingers white-knuckled around my phone. I pushed the On button — Nothing. I went to hit it. Wait, don’t move.
I was a statue for a few minutes while they walked back to their car. The short one did a squat-walk with his seriously stupid pants around his butt, like a wankster. The tall one wiped his hands on his pants and trailed behind. They almost reached the junker of a car when they stopped and turned my way. I barely breathed. They crawled in the rust-bucket, the tall one slamming his door several times.
I exhaled and slipped the phone in my pack, hunched over and crept towards the dock. Someone else was on the dock. Not a person, she had a shiny coat and flippers. Seeing the seal was strange because only two days earlier I’d seen one who was sick. I mean, I felt the sickness. I’m empathic; sometimes I sense animal’s emotions and even pain. My Mom called it a blessing, but I think it’s a curse. I closed my eyes and stood silent for a moment. Thank God, I didn’t feel anything.
An ear-piercing whistle cut through the sound of the surf. My attention jerked to the parked car. Both doors were open. The two guys walked towards me, fast. I started to speak, but my tongue felt like it grew twice its size and stuck to the roof of my mouth. My breath froze in my chest. Startled, I stumbled closer to the dock.
“What’s ‘a matter girl?” the wankster yelled. “Stay away from the seal.”
I glanced back. She hadn’t moved. “She’s sick.”
“What? No one sick, jus’ lazy. Seals good for nothin’ lazy. You stay away.” He waved a small box at me. “What’s your name, girl? Where you from?”
Waves rolled up the beach. He stepped towards me, so close I gagged at the rank smell of his toilet breath and sweat. My lower lip trembled. I pulled my t-shirt closer around me. I figured I could outrun the wankster with his pants around his knees, but I wasn’t sure about the tall one. The wankster shifted from side to side inching closer. The tall one’s eyes worked between his friend and me. I leaned back.
“Hey, where you goin’?” The wankster’s voice snaked towards me. “Come-on girl, I wanna meet you. That a hot swim suit? Show us your Bi-Ki-Ni.” He took a step.
“Don’t,” the tall boy said.
The wankster eyeballed him, blinked and showed his palms as if to ask a question. He glanced in my direction and turned on me; his eyes twitched and got real wide. Throat clinched, every muscle tensed, my knees shook. Run, I kept thinking, run, but I glanced at the seal.
“You like that seal, huh?” the wankster snarled. “They stupid animals, know nothin’, just lay there. Somebody need to do somethin’ about them.”
With a smile he turned to the tall boy and back at me. His eyebrow raised, he smacked his lips. “I was just gonna stick that seal, now I jus’ gonna kill it.”
“Shut up, Freddy.”
“You shut up, Zach.” Freddy threw the box down. “I thought we was friends.” He picked up a long heavy piece of driftwood with two hands. The wood rolled to his shoulder.
I stared into his eyes and he swaggered towards the seal. I wanted to grab the wood, but my feet glued to the sand. He hoisted it and slapped the dock. My body shook as the sound ricocheted off me; the seal and I flinched at once. Lightening shot through my ribs.
“See. He stupid. He don’t even run,” Freddy said as he went to lift the wood again.
“No,” I yelled, but I choked and the sound came out more like a squeak.
“And if I do, what you gonna do about it, huh?” Closer to the seal, he raised the piece of wood straight up.
A strobe flashed in my head, tears blurred my vision. Waves of pain and anger poured through me. The seal’s pain heightened and I did what my mother would have done. I stepped on the dock, in front of Freddy, in the line of fire.
“Stop!” I yelled, this time with full force.
A massive wave crashed against the rocks in synch with the whoosh of wood through the air. I cringed. I knew I was totally dead and covered my face.
Nothing - I peeked between my fingers. Zach had grabbed the wood. Freddy spun around, legs flailed like a rag doll. He flipped upside down, hair grazed the ground and he landed flat on his face in the sand.
“What you doin’?” he screamed at Zach, who held the driftwood.
Zach stood silent for a moment. He looked at me and his sadness reached out. “Let’s go, Freddy. This is crazy.”
“You crazy,” Freddy yelled, as he scrambled up, brushed off his pants and face. “Nobody punk Freddy. Don’t ever do that. Never!”
“Relax, man. I’m just saying …”
“Just saying what? You think you’re so tough because you bigger than me now?” Freddy put his fists up and choked to control his words. His shoulders scrunched, he threw a punch at the air, then his arms fell to his sides.
Zach stepped back and shifted the driftwood between him and Freddy. The muscles in his jaw quivered, he turned towards the car. Freddy kicked the sand and swung his arms wildly, like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum.
On one knee, he swiveled towards me, face red, broken, lips shaking. “I’ll get you,” he shrieked. “You be sorry bitch. I’ll get you.”
I shook so hard I could hardly see. The rage, the wanting, the wrenching pain that twisted his face, it was all so familiar. “I understand,” I wanted to say, but my mouth wouldn’t work with my brain. Then it was too late.
All the way back to their car Freddy cursed and yelled. Zach carried the driftwood like a walking stick and Freddy crab-walked behind him. Zach turned once, stared directly at me, shook his head, and I’m sure the corners of his lips rose slightly. He tossed the wood to the side and moved towards the car.
They got in and backed out, and a whirlwind of energy swept over me. My knees buckled; I collapsed, chest heaved and tears splattered my shirt. I cried for an eternity. My terrible fear, Zach’s quiet-calm, Freddy’s grief and total craziness, too much like my own, but I couldn’t stop. Finally the darkness swallowed me whole and I knew — all I really wanted was my Mom.
The seal remained. We locked eyes and her pain elbowed its way in and brought me back to the beach.
“He could’ve knocked my head off,” I said as I wiped tears and snot with my shirt. “How stupid was I?” She waggled her snout as if in agreement.
Surf swept across the shore, mussels and barnacles bubbled and popped on the rocks. The salty smell of the ocean filled me as my breath matched the short gasps of the seal. Beyond the dock the blue hull of the sailboat rocked upright on a swell and began to move under its own power. The tide had turned.
The smooth silky coat of the seal slipped under my fingers as her eyes followed me. Like a voice with no words, her pain leaked in and told me she needed help. We all needed help.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re all right now,” as much to myself as to the seal. “You’re all right.”
A gust of wind and a screech grabbed my attention. I straightened, became very still and searched the shore. The parking lot and the beach were empty. In the far distance, the harbor. Nothing but silence. I was alone. A chill crept deep in my bones. What if they return?
“I’ll be back. I promise,” and ran for my life.