“Nigh” by Berni E. Carrol

You’ll die in the ocean,’ the fortune cookie reads and as the table laughs while sharing their

own, my breath catches at the stab in my breastbone.

I can’t believe what I’m reading.

You’ll die in the ocean. Lucky numbers 5 12 13.’

“Jackie?” Allyson asks, bumping into me playfully in the booth, “What’s yours say?”

The whole table stops talking to look at me, all seven faces towards me. Maybe looking through

me. Panic rises as I can feel them stare, pushes up hand-in-hand with vomit. I jump up and try

to hurry, but not too fast, to the bathroom. Enough people are watching me. I don’t need to

cause a scene.

I don’t quite make it. I squeeze my lips shut as some Lo Mein noodles and tea squirt onto my

shoes before I can erupt everything into the toilet. A hot mess, all around the bowl. All in the

bowl. A noodle caught in my throat as I keep heaving and squeeze my eyes shut so hard, I see

stars.

Coughing and spitting, I’m mortified when I hear the door open.

“Hey, babe?” Allyson asks sweetly and I wince away from it, “Are you okay?”

“Was it the cooking?” Fatima cuts in.

“Oh my God, Fatima. It’s not the fucking food,” Allyson sighs, “I’ve been coming here for years.

You were bitching through the whole thing. What’s your damage?”

The tension between them kicks up the bile again and I dry-heave.

“Oh, God. I’m sorry,” Allyson coos outside the stall door and it makes me want to cry, “You

want some water, honey?”

“Gross. On the toilet?”

“For real? You’re not helping —”

“I’m okay,” I croak out desperately to find some kind of silence between them.

“Do you want me to drive you home, hun?” Allyson offers, but I can hear the disappointment.

We had all been having a good day, maybe a great day, just hanging out. This is what being a

teenager was supposed to be about. Allyson had planned it all out. Arcade, shopping, eating,

and now the drive to the abandoned Dismount Point to party for the night. This was my first and

only experience as being a “real” teenager and I went with purpose.

“No!” I sputter, suddenly afraid that my plans and hopes will be unrealized because of a dumb

cookie, a stupid prank at the fortune factory. “No, ugh, I’m okay now. I think Fatima’s right.

Um, sorry. But it’s okay. Just give me a second.”

“Oh,” I hear Allyson say and Fatima scoff. “I’m sorry, Jackie, I swear I never had a bad

experience here.”

“It’s okay,” I hear myself say, again and again.

***

Like I said, there’s eight of us — Todd, Adam, Chad, Fatima, Allyson, myself, and two that I

always kind of forget about, Kaven and Travis? Trevor? They’re both ordinary enough to blend

in the chaos. But here we are, scattered over each other in Todd’s mom’s SUV, like a clown car,

heading towards Dismount Point. It’s two days before school starts again. Senior year for them

and Sophomore year for me.

I’ve known Allyson since I was eleven and she would say that we’re friends — really good

friends. She, being easily confident and beautiful, would see it as simple.

But I would say it’s complicated.

When I was a “boy,” I thought I was in love with her. Now that I’m a girl (in most ways), I’m not

so sure. My love is tainted by envy. My adoration is murky with sexuality and resentment. As

much as I love her, I can’t help but wonder if I want her or want to be her — inside that beautiful,

tan and curvy body. Lips that never smear her lipstick. Golden brown hair, thick and soft, that’s

wispy when up and uniform when down. Her eyes are green above her strong cheekbones and

smart, sharp chin.

Even as a girl, I am utterly nothing like her. I am still desperately waiting for the HRT to smooth

my brick-like body, to soften its coarseness, and thicken my drab wet-school-paper-towel-type

hair. It’s been four months and nothing. My doctor says to be patient, but I feel immune to it. I

feel like my body is rejecting it. I feel like a caterpillar that has been lied to with internet photos

of filter-covered butterflies. I am an ugly fucking duckling, no matter what I do.

I had wanted, had dreamed, of entering school looking like a girl, like the girl I imagine myself

as. I had dreamed of this for years, and now, two days away, I look like a monster, a freak.

Same crusty, zit-covered Gary, just with bigger tits and thicker arm hair that refuses to be waxed

or shaved without breaking out in rashes. Sweaty, smelly Gary that tried wearing a skirt for the

first time at school last year and literally pissed himself in embarrassment at lunch. Gary that

was called a “faggot” under the custodian’s breath as he mopped up the piss.

My stomach twists again, and I take a breath, and think about the waves of the ocean. I feel like

I’m floating there. My ugly fucking body floating and disintegrating in the salty moonlight.

In the car, I am with seven people who’ve taken pity on me at Allyson’s discreet insistence.

These are not my friends. I am just here, trying not to touch or be touched. Trying not to sweat

through the flowered dress that my mom bought me while I stayed at home. I pretend that I’m

origami, folding tightly in on myself.

“You okay?” Chad asks next to me.

“Yeah,” I lie, “I’m cool.”

***

It’s about 10 P.M. when we’re able to find a break in the fence and haul ourselves and the

coolers into the park. The sun is already down and gone, and the moonlight makes the sand

look like frosting.

As we reach near the water, I’m mesmerized for a few moments. It’s like watching silver scales

undulating across the horizon. The whole ocean like a giant creature weaving back and forth in

a hypnotic pull of witchcraft and hunger. The thick aroma of sand and salt, far-off fires and dead

ashes, greets me solemnly. My heart is drunk on years of spent adrenaline. The waves soothe

my mind, reaching each bony finger across the sand to beckon my anxiety.

In the distance is the shape of the lighthouse museum that our elementary used to go to every

class trip. But here, this part with its tufts of grass and driftwood, has been off-limits since the

late 90’s when people started disappearing or drowning. Rumor is that it’s cursed, but legally, it

just lost funding and no one has developed on it yet.

Not that it stops teenagers like us…

“Let’s build a fire here,” Fatima announces.

Travis/Trevor protests, but is out-numbered. I shrug my vote. We all collect driftwood and dead

grass, separating wordlessly.

Once the fire starts, so does the curious contemplation of bored and horny teenagers.

“Let’s play ‘Never Have I Ever’,” Chad says, flicking more grass into the slowly burning flames.

“No, no, no,” Adam interrupts, “We don’t have enough beer.”

“Let’s go classic,” Allyson smiles and spots me in the circle to raise her eyebrows. “How about

‘Truth or Dare’?”

I don’t know what she meant by the gesture, but it’s okay. I’m okay. Even when everyone

agrees, I’m okay. Even though I’ve never played this game before, I’m okay.

The game starts the way you’d expect — tame but flirtatious. I’m not called on for a while, which

I’m fine with. I hear about first crushes. I hear about small secrets: cheating, shoplifting, and

stealing money from their parents. I see the small dares of boys taking off their shirts and

Allyson throwing sand in her bra.

When I am called on by Adam, by pity I guess, he asks an easy Truth: who do I love more — my

mother or father? Mother. She at least buys me dresses and purses. She lets me watch makeup

tutorials on YouTube. She takes me to see Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Cook. She doesn’t understand

it, but she tries.

My dad, living in Toledo with his “mid-life wife,” hasn’t even called me back yet. I wrote him a

letter at the beginning of summer. I told him my name. I told him my feelings. Dr. Nguyen

coached me, called me brave, although I didn’t feel it. But Dad didn’t say anything and that

said enough…

I don’t mention all that to the group, though.

After a few more rounds it gets more…sexual, more prying. Chad admits to watching grandma

porn on occasion. Adam talks about his uncle with a heroin addiction stealing money from his

piggy bank when he was a kid and putting a knife to his throat. Kavin is dared to show his dick

for a second. Fatima asks Allyson about her first time and I hear about Brandon Teramin from

summer camp. My stomach twists again and the ocean is so loud and sharp in my ears. The

moonlight seems to dim.

It goes around and around me until finally Chad asks me, “So, are you, like…going to get the

whole thing? Like the surgery?”

“Oh my God,” Allyson interrupts, “you can’t just ask that!”

For a moment, I’m relieved. The faces are away from me, at Allyson, as she rescues me. But

then, somewhere deep, something crawls inside me, right to my pounding heart. It’s a feeling

I’ve denied myself often. I feel pissed off. Watching her speak for me, it pisses me off.

“Why not?” I ask suddenly, shocking both of them. “Why can’t he? Isn’t that the game? He can

ask anything and I’m supposed to answer? Why am I not allowed to play, Allyson?”

All seven have turned to me again, but in this quiver of fear and anger, I don’t care.

“Gary —,” she slips, “Jackie, I didn’t mean it —”

“I don’t know,” I tell Chad honestly, “Maybe. I want to, but…”

I leave it at that. I’m still burning in anger, in frustration.

We’re all silent until Fatima says, gently, to me, “It’s your turn.”

I forgot.

“Allyson,” I pick and she quietly responds, “Truth.”

“What did it feel like when you were fucked?”

Her perfect sea-glass eyes widen. “Excuse me?”

“What did it feel like,” I repeat, “when you were fucked?”

The years of resentment bubble up in those words. I was always Allyson’s friend: watching from

the corners, listening to her stories, living through her and wanting to be with her. These people

are not my tribe but hers. This place is not my place but hers. This world, this future, is not mine.

Was never mine and could never be mine.

I was so fucking stupid to think it was love. I was so stupid to think I should love her. I can’t

compare. There’s no comparison and I hate it. I hate her for how she makes me feel about

myself.

“Answer the question.”

Incredulous, she shakes her head, “What’s your damage, Gary?”

“Jackie,” I correct her sharply.

“What’s this about?” She counters, more agitated, “What the fuck?”

“I want to know,” I tell her, matter-of-factly, “how it felt when you got dicked.”

Shaking her head, dumb-struck, she leans back and all seven pairs of eyes are finally on her for

once. It feels so powerful. It feels like vindication and heart-break.

“I don’t know why you’re doing this…but it hurt, okay? It hurt. Okay?”

But my sick, greedy heart wants more. I want to imagine it. “Like, the whole time?”

“Dude,” Travis/Trevor says to diffuse the situation, but I snap, “I’m not your ‘dude’.”

“Yes,” Allyson breathes out, “Yeah, okay? The whole time.”

“What’s it to you?” Fatima asks and I deftly answer, “Wait your turn to find out.”

After that, you’d think that the game would have ended, but my question only fueled it. Thus

began a more ruthless, a more desperate game, as we drank everything we brought and cut

into our darkest questions. These bland shadows that I have spent most of my summer with,

that I barely knew, I quickly discovered their fears and fantasies in a few short hours.

I was dared to grope them, to be touched, to show my misshapen tits in comparison to the

other girls’, and to marvel at their own secret malformations. I watched as girls kissed each

other and boys kissed each other. Tears were shed and they became human to me. It was

magical. It was exhilarating. It was terrifying. I felt like I had been robbed, utterly robbed, if this

was what being a teenager was supposed to be. It stuck in my throat like a long Lo Mein noodle.

I have been robbed of being human.

Around midnight was when Allyson asked me if I was in love with her and when I answered

honestly that I don’t know. All I know is that she’s perfect. And she laughed like music when I

said that.

It’s around 2 A.M. when Adam pulls Fatima closer to him and she doesn’t seem to mind, and

they kiss for the first time. In our own quiet space, Allyson sits next to me and we watch the

waves. She asks what my fortune was, and I reach into my purse and dig it from the bottom.

Without hesitation I hand it to her. To my surprise, she laughs.

“That’s pretty fucking morbid.”

I don’t laugh and she notices. Like at the restaurant, she bumps against me a little. “So…what’s

up, buttercup?”

It stings before I even can say it. “I, uh…wasn’t expecting to go back home tonight.”

“Oh?” She asks, but doesn’t get it.

“Uh, yeah, or…like, ever. I, um, don’t want to start school. It’s like…really peaceful here. I

remember coming here with my parents, like, you know, before it closed…and…it’s just really

peaceful, you know…? Like, maybe I might stay here.”

“Oh,” she breathes out. She gets it.

Resting her head on my shoulder, we stay like that for a while and I’m surprised I’m not bawling

my eyes out. Instead, the chatter of the dying fire and hushing waves carve out my sadness and

her warmth seeps into my skin. The water, its massive dark body, now glitters like a gem being

cut, but its bone-white fingers still claw at the beach towards me.

After a few minutes, I can feel vibrations and I realize that she’s singing, low and sweet, the

song ‘Jackie Blue’ and my heart melts. That’s when I know that I’m 100% in love with her.

I want to be her, I want to be with her, and I want her to love me. I want everything. Everything

that I can’t have.

“Hey,” she says a while later, when everyone is asleep, “I want to show you something. Come

with me?”

I follow her down the beach, stumbling on the sand and gristle of weeds along the way, heels in

my hand. She’s faster than me, but keeps looking back, laughing breathlessly to wait for a

second for me. I keep calling out to her, trying to catch up, and she just laughs and lets the

moon color all of her curves with its sugary gleam.

When she reaches the water, she jumps to face me. Coughing, I reach her, “What —? What the

heck?”

Again, that music lights me on fire as she laughs and takes a deep breath from the mouth of the

ocean.

“Do you really think I’m perfect?” She asks with a wild smile.

“Well,” I mumble and feel again like a rough brick on the beach, sinking into the erosion of the

waves.

“It’s funny that you think that,” Allyson says, stepping closer to me, “Only certain people can see

it. Weird, huh?”

She falters a moment, maybe a flash of hesitation, before she brushes her fingers against my

face. I flush. I can only hear my heart and the ocean. I can still see the green of her eyes in the

darkness, floating in her beautiful face and soaking me clean.

“Did you know that I used to come here, too? I mean, when it was still open? I guess we all did.

My step-mom did before she left my dad. Late at night, like this, when I was around ten, I guess.

She said that she had something to show me and I think I just thought that it was a game or

something. Like a bonding moment or something.

“I didn’t see her as perfect. Some people did, though. It was right before she left. Do you remember her?”

Vaguely. I really wasn’t sure if Allyson was drunk still, or about to tell me something bad, like

really bad. “I guess…?”

“Well, she showed me something that night. Something really powerful. And I guess what I’m saying is that there are a few kinds of people I can be around and few that I can’t…Jackie. I…didn’t know that you thought that. I thought that we were…friends, I guess.”

Her hand is still there, but I feel my heart being deli-sliced as she talks. I try not to cry because I

can feel it gear up. This is going to be rejection. And now I’ll have to die knowing that the one

person that I loved didn’t love me back.

I hate this.

As soon as the tears come, she cups my face, but I don’t want her to see it. I try to back away,

but she doesn’t let me.

“It’s not you, Jackie,” she says quietly and my heart is bleeding out, I can feel it bleeding all over

my lungs and I can barely breathe, “Jackie, listen. Listen. I’m sorry. But I don’t think either of us

are who we thought each other was. I’m sorry. I am. I do love you, okay?”

I hide my face from her with my shaking hands.

“Listen, listen. Hey, listen. We both can get what we want, what we need, though, okay? Just for

tonight. Just right now, okay?”

Her hands are suddenly gone and I’m cold in the August heat. Through tears, I see her take a

step back and wistfully smile. Carefully, she reaches down to her top’s edge and slowly pulls it

over her head. I watch, unsure what the hell is going on and what I should do.

Placing her hands on her body, she trails down and pushes down her short shorts. Just in a bra

and black underwear. I am still flummoxed – pained and shocked and aroused. The wistful smile

curls more shyly and she unlatched her bra and I’m suddenly staring at her naked chest. Tears

stop like a faucet, more out of surprise, as I watch, agape.

Her long fingers again trail down her body and reach her ruffled panties before stopping. She

bites her lip a little, looks vulnerable but set in her decision, “Hey, you gotta catch up again,

huh?”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Allyson nods to my dress, “C’mon, Jackie. For tonight…”

Gob-smacked, my hands move before my brain can process them. Maybe because I’m drunk,

maybe because I can feel the desperation of the moment, I just breathe and allow myself to

grab my dress and pull it over my head. I would have worn a nicer bra, prettier underwear, if I

had known. I would have bought some. But before I can feel too much shame, her panties are

off and she’s completely naked, like a painted goddess, right in front of me.

Slowly, she backs into the rushing water as it laps up her feet and calves. “Hurry up, before I

lose my nerve.”

Pulling off the bra, I wished I had more and better to offer, and I pause at the underwear that’s

not doing any kind of job of hiding my painfully confused erection. She’s slipping away from me,

so I take a deep breath and vow to just live in the moment, no matter what this is, no matter

what it becomes. I suck in that bitter air and follow her in.

Wading out, she pulls me further. The ocean is cold but alive between us. Her hands are on

mine, sometimes drifting further, towards my hips and shoulders. But I can’t touch her yet.

The waves lick up our breasts and collarbones before she grabs me and kisses me. It’s very

unexpected and I gasp into her open mouth. Her tongue melts me from head to toe. I wonder

how this could be happening, how this can be real. It’s pity, I know, but I cling to her like a buoy.

Finally pulling away, I feel dizzy and drunk again. Her smile again is wistful.

“You’ve been a good friend to me,” she murmurs, “Thank you. I wish you knew how wonderful

you were…”

I felt a sting of shame, thinking she means as a “boy” and I’m jealous of him, that facade I left

behind.

She puts her lips against mine again, but it doesn’t really lead into a kiss, but some kind of hold.

Furiously pressing her whole naked body against mine, it’s sharp and tight. I’m about to pull

away, but realize I can’t breathe. Or I can breathe, but it’s saltwater – I realize that we’re

suddenly underwater.

I struggle to pull away, thinking maybe it’s a wave or undertow, but then I realize that she’s

clutching onto me and we’re sinking deeper. I push against her, trying to scream, trying to get

air, but her hands are like concrete against me. We are sinking further down. I thrash against

her, but she doesn’t flinch.

As we drift, I somehow can feel something in the darkness, like an eel crawling into my

stomach, a thought, a feeling, ‘But it’s so peaceful…Just let this happen. Let me hold you a little

longer…Just for tonight. This is what we both want…”

I can feel it wriggling into my chest, against my stretched lungs and beating heart. Slimy skin

inside me, pulsating against the cells of my being. There are little teeth gnawing into the bones

and tissues there, into the vulnerability and fear that I’ve sewn away for so long.

Beneath, with flashes of moonlight, I swear I see her face change. Her mouth opens and elongates, almost like a horse. Her eyes turn black, inky black, as her jaw widens. Flat teeth make way as the jaw unhinges like a snake and I can, in between the silver streaks of pulsating light, make out the cavern of her throat and stomach as she begins to swallow me. And that voice with its little teeth still digging into my heart, “Yesyesyes, Gary, let this happen…

There’s something strange at the cusp of passing out and those sloppy steps towards death — a

will and need to survive.

Suddenly, it’s not about school in two days, or my stupid tits, or brick-like body, or the fortune

cookie and the plan I had before this all happened. It’s primal, it reacts before I can tell it to or

ask it. It is a force alive in me that I never asked for, nor knew.

As the ocean swallows me, I swallow it. I clutch onto the bony fingers of a panicked death

and bend them backwards. I claw at the flesh holding me here, at the thing that entered my

heart and leeched off the sorrow there. I tear at the pity weighing me down with my bare teeth

and taste its flesh like a shark. I scrape and bite and push that mouth apart until I can taste its bitter blood all the way down my throat. I swallow it. I am the one who takes her apart. I am the one who defies it. I am the one who will survive it.

Crawling from the waves, I am still coughing, still shaking, naked here in the sand. The moon

burns into my eyes, freshly cut from the reciprocating waves. I have no energy, no words. Like a

baby, I babble and cry. Crudely wet, I clutch onto and into the Earth. Fresh from the womb, I

gasp for life, again and again, until I fall into a deep, empty sleep.

***

I’m at the police station, still in awe, still silent. They call it shock. We’re waiting for an

ambulance. The sun pours into the detective’s coffee cup after he finishes the coffee there.

“And that was the last time you saw your friend?” Detective Starr asks again.

I nod, shakily. My throat is burning, no matter how much water I drink. I can still taste her blood under the curl of my tongue.

“You just went out for a swim?”

Nodding again, Fatima wraps her arm around me. “Yeah, she told you that.”

“Have you found Allyson yet?” Adam asks.

The Detective leans back and I watch him carefully, afraid he may somehow know, may

somehow be able to look right through me, “No, but…she’ll probably turn up. There’s a reason

why that beach is off limits, you know? It’s real quick to pull you out. Kids like you get drunk out

there and drown all the time…All the time…”

His cold blue eyes focus on me, “You got really lucky, kid. Call it an act of God, huh?”

Slowly, I nod again, and look down at my still-wrinkled hands. “I always thought it was so

peaceful there…”

“No, never been. Even back in the lighthouse days. Sea monsters and shit like that. But no, it

pulls you right into its mouth and doesn’t spit you out…I lost an uncle to it, way back when I

was a kid. He was there one minute and gone the next. Perfect day, too. Not a cloud in the sky.”

“Poor Allyson…” Fatima says quietly.

We hear the sirens of the ambulance pulling in and I nod again.

Poor Allyson.

Honestly, I don’t know what happened. I can only look back with shaky hands, like watching a

play I was part of but didn’t perform. An old story of survival and defiance. And maybe that’s

who I am, and who I always was — the one who is different enough to foil the expectations of

others. Even poor Allyson, whatever the hell happened. Whatever that was.

I don’t even know what my next steps will be, but I think I now have my whole life to figure it out.

“Are you okay?” Fatima asks gently, handing me my purse. Something small flutters out and she picks it up, handing it to me.

I snort softly and tightly fold the fortune in on itself before throwing it in the police station’s trash.

“Yeah,” I honestly answer. “I think so.”

Berni E. Carrol, author.

Berni E. Carrol loves to knit while watching horror because the scarier it is, the faster she knits! She lives with her lovely wife in a lovely old brick home and favorite pick-me-ups are buying stickers and looking for interesting rocks on the beach. 1st place winner of the office door decorating contest every Halloween.