Summer had swelled to its peak, and his sister Lucy had grown up some. It was clear from the way she held her lips and legs. Everything about her appeared a stiff sort of buoyant, as if she were barely floating.
He told Lucy it was something about jellyfish season. That the water clogged so completely it nearly stilled to an opaque mud, and one of these days even the minnows wouldn’t be able to swim between their globed bodies. That the jellies would bloom until they saturated the ocean, until the world was lost entirely, wrapped to one enormous, clouded chrysalis.
Lucy always loved the far jetty cracked with periwinkle, seeded with starfish and hermit crabs, the kind that festered between swollen rock. Her brother told her, “Don’t put your feet in the water. They know you’re not food, but dammit, they’ll sting you anyway.”
But she wasn’t the child she used to be, and he was talking circles around the reason he’d brought her there in the first place.
“I’m not an idiot,” Lucy smiled. “Besides, it’s not like we’re swimming.”
Together, Lucy and her brother counted the tourists, who were furious at the state of the ocean. So many mothers with plastic buckets and crying children. Lucy couldn’t keep her eyes off the kids as they prodded the dry, beached jellies with sticks, looking for the stingers.
Lucy and her brother cored wild peaches he had stolen from a nearby orchard. While licking the juice off the fruit’s slick taffy flesh, they relished the sight of three herons wading in a shallow lagoon. The birds walked carefully, unable to avoid the masses of jellyfish beneath their feet. Their eyes scanned the glossy surface as radar. Their feet speared the tender blobs until their pencil legs turned skewered with the heads of a dozen jellyfish.
Then Lucy’s brother threw what remained of his core into the lagoon, taking brief note of the herons as their heads rose in curious precision at the sound. Lucy laughed at the sight, hiccupped on her fruit. A piece became lodged in her throat and she dry-gagged.
“You all right?” her brother asked.
Lucy wheezed, one hand clasped around her throat. Her stomach lurched, then pelted a quarter-sized bite of peach onto a mat of slick seaweed.
Her brother had worried she’d fall to the jellyfish. A newspaper reported their venom potent, a nasty wound. When you’re in the water, he thought, you’re all the way in. There’s no way to be so sure parts of you stay completely dry. He’d been thinking about it before willing himself to sleep the night before.
Lucy’s brother took a deep breath in and out, the air moving through him as a tide. “You know,” he said, “it’s all right if you don’t tell Mom.”
The words did not take long to wash over his sister.
“Wait— how do you know?” Lucy fired back. “About what?”
“Lucy,” he started, wiping his hands free of a gummy peach slime, “he and I are friends.”
Somewhere in the distance, majestic church bells climbed in baritone steps to the heavens. Lucy’s lips quaked in time to each hollow pang. She flushed scarlet, and her eyes darted to her brother’s.
She stuttered into the air, panicked, as the herons struck their wings for the cooling horizon, fading to dots in the sunlight. “Dammit!" she finally spit out.
He only brought it up because their mom asked him to do so. She found things out from the high school nurse, but didn’t believe in forcing herself on her daughter. The punishment for Lucy’s summer was to be no swimming. But, as it was, those options had already been taken.
“Dammit,” she spat again, thrusting her palms into cratered barnacles that appeared as bottle caps across the jetty. “He said he wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“He told me that too, Lucy. It’s gonna be fine.”
“No,” she said. “It’s not.” It was all she could do to keep from erupting completely.
Her legs fell to kindergarten Indian-style as she plucked obscenities from the air. “Shit. Fuck. You don’t know —well, not everything— not what it feels like.”
She sank, and her hair rested on her nose, curtained her face. Her thumb and forefinger pinched the bone between her eyes as tears swelled beneath her skin.
“Don’t worry,” her brother said. “I’m not telling anybody.”
“Well, you’re telling me,” Lucy snapped, firing a dull stone to the tip of the jetty. As it popped into the water, she imagined it being stung to life by dozens of purple stingers. “And he’ll tell more people. Oh, he will. God knows how many.” Her eyes narrowed to a few jellyfish suctioned against a buoy. “You just can’t tell me he won’t. You don’t get to say that.”
Lucy crossed her arms in submission, directed her heavy gaze to the sky. A thought stung her somewhere between her eyebrows.
“You know,” Lucy started, a few tears falling around her, “I have half a mind to walk right into that water. To just walk in and let the jellyfish decide if they want my damn baby.”
Her brother kept silent. He wished he had brought along another peach, something to chew over. He wished he had an excuse, something to offer.
“You know, I think I will,” she announced. Her face bloomed to a strange shade of red.
Jellyfish lolled lazily against the jetty as high tide crept toward shore. Everything seemed pulled; even the air tightened as rope. The lighthouse beacon lit in preparation of another night— unnecessarily, her brother thought, since the mass of jellyfish glowed so severely. During the night they hummed a pulsing rhythm. At school, he heard their neon light kept many from comfortable sleep.
“Don’t, Lucy,” her brother offered. “Please. Things will work out between you and Mom, She said that—“
“She said?” Lucy interrupted, attracting the attention of a few tourists lingering on the pier, not far from the lagoon.
“Fuck off,” Lucy yelled up at them, tears rolling down her face. “Fuck off! The damn jellyfish aren’t going anywhere. The damn jellyfish have been here for ten fucking days.”
Lucy’s words hit like hammers into drywall. Her brother promptly stood, careful not to slip on the weeds and reeds and barnacles as he found his footing. He reached for her shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said, holding her with reassurance. His eyes reflected the billions of jellies, each a spineless egg. “Lucy, just try and calm down.” Her breathing grew long and labored, and her eyes avoided his with a slippery embarrassment.
The jellyfish steeped themselves, as if teabags in the lagoon. Their presence was not only imposing but invincible. Their tentacles bled swiftly into the horizon and their eyes alit, one by one, beckoning another restless night.
“It’s time to leave, Luce. Let’s go home.”
Instead, Lucy locked eyes with a fellow fishing off the pier. The way he twice proclaimed, “Caught something! Oh, just more jellyfish,” struck her every time. It lashed her sideways, up and down. It scored her lengthwise until her body grew to a stung tally, counting the number of mistakes it takes to break someone completely.
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