This piece is one part of a collection of stories called Amelia. See another section here.
It was the summer that the water was rising. Everyone had a different explanation: Lily thought it had something to do with the moon, that the moon was getting closer and closer to earth, and eventually it was going to smash right into our little town and wipe it off the planet. Amelia thought if this happened the big endless ocean would open up and swallow the moon whole without even a ripple to show it had sunk. The church ladies thought it was a sign from God condemning the sinners in our town, and went about declaring that everyone was going to drown and be pulled into a vortex of water that would suck them down into the depths of Hell where they would burn forever. The fishermen didn’t mind, because the water was deeper and they were catching more crabs than ever. They certainly did not think God was plaguing them.
Everything smelled wet and salty. Seaweed showed up everywhere: in the street, on car tires and the edges of buildings, encrusted emeralds of slimy leaves and sand coating people’s shoes and the cuffs of their pants. That summer was the summer of finding things, because the water washed up high and when it slinked back down to where it belonged, it left behind all sorts of treasures. Seashells, shiny and polished smooth by the tumbling waves, and beach glass, green and gold and blue, that we collected for my neighbor Lily to make into necklaces on sharp wire.
The sea left these things, and other normal sea things, like crab shells and coral and jellyfish corpses, but it also left strange things. Sunglasses with one lens missing. Shoes—sandals mostly, but sometimes sneakers with seaweed and algae coating the laces and tiny crabs sheltered inside. Books with all the ink bled out of them. Plastic dolls in yellowed “glamour” bikinis, their hair irredeemably tangled and bottoms pulled down to reveal their white panties painted on. Once I found a pink and green lunchbox, and once a whole sandwich sealed in a bag, not touched at all by the salty water. The large gray sea climbed the sand, getting higher and higher until it almost seemed like it would overflow into the streets, and then it would surrender, coughing up these odd artifacts for me to find. For us to find, Amelia and me.
Day in and day out, we walked the shores of our beach, collecting, exploring. Amelia walked carrying a long stick, using it to dig at things under the sand that she thought might be interesting—a particularly shiny rock or, once, a cap that must have flown off someone’s head in the breeze and was half-stuck under the sand, the blue brim just visible. We wandered quite freely that summer (it was the era when children were able to do so) and sometimes I think that it may have been one of the greatest summers of my life. It was, at least, the last great summer of my childhood.
It was the summer that the sun faded everything. This, of course, happened every summer—the summer in question was just the first time in my twelve years that I noticed it. The houses, already pale tones of blue and slate, dulled to a uniform watercolor gray, the color you’d get if you took up all the brushes the houses were painted with and rinsed them in the same bowl of water. The sun faded everything; the beaches were barren and lifeless, with only a lone bleached seagull alighting on a rock every now and then. The beaches in our town were not the golden beaches of the postcards Amelia found and hung up with chewing gum in our cave. Our beaches were gray and foggy; the sun was white and never warm enough, and the sand glinted pale silver. The shores were too rocky for visitors to walk down to the water in bare feet. The town decided to build a pier, a long white concrete “boardwalk” that led to the edge of the water, built over the large craggy rocks and the spiky broken seashells so that tourists, if they came, could walk up in their bare feet and sit with their legs dangling in the water, perhaps licking an ice cream cone and laughing.
But no tourists came and the pier went unused. Way up at the top of the pier, just before it met the parking lot, there was a space underneath, sheltered on either side by the pillars that held it up. The space was too small to fit into unless you were a child. The water never came up that high but the sand was still damp and cool, and sometimes little hermit crabs dug their way out of the sand to end up there. Besides the hermit crabs and Amelia and me, no one else seemed to know about this place: it was our cave, and all the things that we found and collected stayed here, taped to the concrete walls or displayed on shelves made from soggy cardboard boxes stacked to different heights. Colorful seashells, coins, handwritten notes made crinkly and delicate by the water and sun, watches whose faces had drowned in the ocean until the hands no longer clicked. Amelia hung up drawings and pictures ripped from the National Geographic magazines that were stacked in the lobby of the diner Lily worked at. We had found an old faded cushion from someone’s outdoor furniture (left behind for the trash or perhaps blown from their backyard) and brought it for a seat. When we weren’t collecting, we stayed there all day, reading books or leaning against the cool concrete and finding ourselves falling asleep.
At least the pier was being used for something besides comforting the feet of the very few families with summer houses. They repainted their siding purple or yellow or green every May to avoid the fading effect of the sun and sea air, but even these freshly painted houses faded somewhat by August. By then the families were scurrying out of town, back to their warm brick-walled apartments in the city. But Amelia’s family and mine stayed, all year long, staring out at the angry gray ocean. Her mother was a tailor—she could sew but didn’t make clothes of her own. As much as Amelia begged for a pink cotton sundress for August, her mother refused. “I have work to do, Amelia,” she would say. She spent her days bent over her neighbors’ jeans and suit jackets, taking up a hem or taking out a seam for hours, squinting in the weak lamplight of her workroom at the top of the house. Amelia’s father was a train conductor, which, when I was very young, sounded exciting and exotic.When I was older, I realized he only worked on the train that circled the town all day long, bringing people to the grocery store or the doctor’s office, and it was really more of a trolley than a train anyway.
All of this left Amelia with me, who, only four years her senior, wasn’t quite old enough to be her babysitter but was slightly too old to be her friend. Amelia was a strange child; she had this very odd inquisitive nature, and I was simultaneously fascinated and frightened by her. Her eyes hadn’t washed out along with everything else but stayed bright green, seaweed green with grains of golden sand speckling them. And if I was lying to her or trying to trick her, she would just look at me with those eyes and her questioning stare, and I’d know I was caught. I learned to simply stop lying, and by July, Amelia was accompanying me on all of my afternoon journeys. She waited on my porch every morning for me to emerge from my empty house, my parents having left for their office jobs. She was there at the same time everyday. In fact, I really think that sometimes it was I who followed her around, despite how desperately I wanted to keep up appearances. She was the brains of our entire operation; I can admit this to myself only now.
One day in August, when the water had been rising fast, we were restless and felt sure that we had found everything that could possibly be found hiding in the sand. We decided to delve into the town to see what treasures could be there, but our journey was largely unsuccessful—all we found in the alleyways and mailboxes and parking lots we scoured was trash and bills and cigarette butts. We gave up and decided to deliver Lily the beach glass we found that week and go home for dinner. We walked to the diner where she worked, and with its large dirty windows and faux-retro silver panels, it almost looked pretty in the sunset, the sherbet sky reflecting off its surfaces and obscuring the fingerprint smudges that were never washed from the outside. We entered through the double doors into the cool fluorescent lobby and were told by the hostess that Lily stayed home because her baby was sick. I was frustrated and bored and we had walked a long way for nothing. I stuffed the jar of multicolored glass into my canvas bag and stormed out, a confused Amelia straggling behind me.
And this was when she found it. I’m still angry that it was her, because the searching for and collecting of things had been my idea, my plan for adventure. But at the same time it makes sense; she was always more devoted than I. Amelia had something that I didn’t. I wanted the glory of the great find while she wanted to hold the objects in her hands, study them, look at them closely and then from far away. I wanted to show everyone. She wanted to keep things all for herself—not in a selfish way, but in a curious way. For her, it seemed there was always more to be discovered.
It was sitting in the alley next to the diner where Amelia wandered, trying to keep up with me. It was upside-down and its back was to her, brown and rough with staples attaching it to the frame and a wire for hanging it dragging on the ground from the reversed top. She called “Sharona! Come here!” as she turned it around.
I came around the corner. When she swung the backwards painting toward me I dropped my bag, the jar inside crashing when it hit the ground and glittering chunks of jar glass and beach glass spraying out of the open zipper of my bag onto the pavement. We knew it was beautiful even as it stared at us from upside down, the woman’s face smiling a strange-looking backwards smile. I was breathless. I grabbed the frame to help Amelia place the painting right side up, and she gasped a little when she took it in. All the colors: reds, greens, golds—they were colors we had never seen before, at least not so vibrantly, or so richly or beautifully. The woman was smiling, looking past the painter’s eyes, and her lips were a red that matched her dress and ruby necklace. Her eyebrows were thick and dark and matched her hair, which was swept to the side in a long spiraling braid secured with a gold pin. Her eyes were gray. Gray the color of watercolors all mixed up in the same cup. I looked over at Amelia and she was blinking rapidly. It was the ultimate find.
We carried the heavy painting in its gold-leafed frame all the way back to the cave. We debated for a while over where to put it, and finally settled upon the corner, moving some boxes so it could sit next to the necklace from Lily and the postcards. Amelia sat there and just looked at it. She examined every part of the painting in the dying light that was shining into the cave. She felt it—it had a rich texture of brushstrokes and layers upon layers of vibrant oil paints. I imagined painting this woman who sat so still and patient. Or perhaps it was not a real woman at all, but a photograph, or an invention from the painter’s head, or the painter was the woman and she was painting herself. Or I imagined I was the woman being painted and I would sit very still and smile very slightly until the artist was done. But however deeply I felt the connection to the painting, I was annoyed to know that Amelia felt it more. I could tell by her silence; to Amelia, I wasn’t even there anymore. It was just her and the painting, her treasure, her discovery. I left her sitting there in the semi-darkness, which was night by the time I returned home. My parents were snoring on the couch and I switched off the television and went to bed. I dreamt about colors, about crimson smiles and black-rimmed eyes and the careful stroke of a painter’s hand. I dreamt about carrying the painting out of the cave and showing the people who visited the town in the summer, the ones with the purple and green and yellow houses. They appreciated it. They applauded its richness, the vibrancy of its shades. I smiled next to the painting in the middle of town, accepting praise from all the tourists and their children. I dreamt that I carried the painting to far-off cities to display it in famous art museums and got to stay next to it when visitors came and tell the story of how I found it, unassumingly in the little alley next to the diner. But when I woke up, I remembered that I hadn’t found it. Amelia had.
I felt a little badly when I woke up that I had left her in the cave; she was only eight, she could have been scared. I hoped she wouldn’t be angry at me even as I was annoyed at myself for caring. But when I swung open my creaky screen door, she was there on the porch as always. She was red-cheeked and excited.
“Can we go look at the painting, Sharona? I just want to visit it. Oh, isn’t it just so pretty? Can we go?”
“Okay. I guess so. Sure.” I couldn’t deny her. This was the most excited I had ever seen Amelia, the first time she hadn’t wanted to go searching for new finds. As we walked to the beach, I could feel her anticipation building.
But of course, this was the summer that the water was rising. When we got to the beach, it was already too late. Overnight, the water had flooded the cave, taking with it all of our secret finds, all of our beautiful trinkets and treasures, the seashells, Lily’s necklace, the books. And the painting.
I ran frantically across the cold wet sand collecting what was left of our summer spent searching for tiny beautiful things in a foggy wet town. I found a few pages of the books, and a watch, but when I looked back at Amelia she was ignoring all of these trivial things. Her inquisitive eyes were desperately searching for one thing only. We spotted it at the same moment.
It was face down in the sand. Amelia’s breath caught in her throat as we approached it and she flipped it over, expecting to see the beautiful rich colors smiling back at her. But the woman’s face was no longer a face; it was a mash of colors mixed to create a brown, streaky mess. Her hair was marred with blotches of green from her sleeves and her mouth was melted into a shocked “o” that ran down the canvas. The frame was washed clean, the gold leafing all but dissolved into the ocean. The dress was mangled, black swirls and gold streaks, barely recognizable as a piece of clothing, and the ruby necklace bled like a gunshot on the collarbone.
I looked over at Amelia, and she seemed calm and understanding. She dropped the painting back in the sand and wiped her hands off on her sweater. She walked slowly away from the painting and the cave and from me. I don’t know where she went that afternoon, but I know that after that day, our collecting had lost its novelty. She started to come to my porch less and less frequently, though I still peeked out every morning to see if she was sitting there, very still, her brown ponytail swinging in the breeze. Then, without my realizing it, it was autumn. The summer families left and we began school again, separated by our ages, and I saw her waiting on the curb as I passed by in the junior high bus. I waved, and she waved back. I wonder sometimes if that was also the last great summer of her childhood. I imagine it probably was.
Photography by Tom Smith.
Alecia is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiancé, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn.