It has been five hundred and forty-eight days since Charlotte walked into the sea.
It has been fifty-eight days since I started coming here. To watch. Listen. Get support, Miles insisted, and since he’s been paying for my apartment and groceries and Wi-Fi and everything else, I figure doing what he asks is the least I can do. But sitting for eight weeks feels like a lot, when you aren’t getting any better.
There are nine of us in group this week, not counting the leader, Rae. We meet twice a week in the basement of, get this, a maritime museum. Can you believe it? And in the entryway guess, guess what they have hanging up? A fucking Humpback skeleton. Fifty-two feet of oily bones suspended by steel cables. I don’t know—I guess it seems insensitive to me. I don’t want to walk under somebody’s dad, or wife, or cousin or whatever, even if they’re not really that anymore, since they’re Gone. But now it doesn’t bother me as much. I’ve named her Beulah. The whale, that is, that thing that used to be human. I’ve decided she was probably someone’s grandmother. The air conditioning is super powerful next to her left fin, and it actually moves a little bit. Waving hello. Waving goodbye. Whale fins, skeleton fins, look like human hands; which I guess makes sense, considering what they used to be. Before they went in. Became Gone. All that noise.
Today is our second meeting this week, and I’m late. I was late on the first day too, and I’ve been late off and on since then, and Rae has made some passive-aggressive comments about respecting everyone’s time but I’m just like, come on. You could start without me, I don’t care. Maybe being late is a step in my grieving process, Rae. I’m not always the last one in the room, but Rae never starts until everyone’s arrived. She shook hands with everyone on the first day, asked our names, that whole thing. I shook her hand and smiled, very customer-service, but then after like two weeks she wanted to start hugging me and I’m like, girl, no. Sorry, but not today. I’d normally tack “Satan” on the end of that, but Rae’s not Satan, she’s just touchy-feely, which is a little much for me.
Everyone else seems super into it, though. Maybe I’m missing something.
At the start of each meeting Rae always invites us to share our stories. The first day we just introduced ourselves: “Hi, I’m Tom, and my wife walked into the ocean two years ago,” “I’m Jean, my mom walked in a month ago,” “I’m Sierra, my daughter went in this past January,” round and round we go. And we all have to do the thing—that stereotype AA thing that they do on TV, where everyone choruses “Hi, so-and-so” back. I’m not saying it makes me want to actively jump off a roof, but I’m not not saying that, either. I’ve had to hear it a lot—the program is described as a “come as you are, however long you need” experience (at least, that’s what it said on the flyer Miles pushed at me the night he said “get off your ass or I’m cutting you off”—okay, he didn’t say exactly that, but, subtext) but apparently most people have some kind of glowing epiphany about their Gone after three or four weeks, because nobody ever seems to last any longer than that. Or maybe they just get bored, I don’t know. That I could understand. But I’m still here.
Tonight’s group mostly all came in at the same time; about two weeks ago, I think? So a lot of them are still in that sad, blubbery, “Why? Why?” stage, which is just kinda like, eye roll, you know? Like I get it, Susan, your husband walked into the ocean and you’re pretty sure he became a dolphin because they have sex for fun and you had a feeling he didn’t find you attractive anymore, and that blows, for sure, but you still have to dry up and move past it at some point, right? And really, are you sure that’s why he went into the water? No, you’re not, because none of us really know, do we? None of us know why they did this to us.
I walk in right as Rae is sitting down. I look at the clock—6:03. I actually made pretty good time tonight, gold star for me. Rae glances at me and I smile at her, sort of, in that way you smile at strangers at Target that you know and have to acknowledge but don’t actually want to talk to. That’s how I feel about a lot of people in group. I hurry through the center of the circle and take a seat in—well, not the corner, exactly, it’s a circle, but there’s this part that’s a little further back, surrounded by dusty fishing nets with this super old photograph of a fisherman, dressed like the Gorton’s guy, seriously, that I’ve staked out as my spot. I’ve named the fisherman Sal, and I feel closer to him than I do to anyone who’s actually in group. Not that that’s a surprise.
“Alright, looks like we’re all here. Hello, everyone,” Rae smiles around at us.
“Hello, Rae,” the group says back. It’s like a depressing, off-key choir.
“I’m happy to see so many faces back with us from last week,” Rae goes on, “and maybe a new face or two as well—welcome! Since we’re getting to know someone new, why don’t we re-introduce ourselves?” Oh, Christ, here we fucking go. “I’ll kick us off,” Rae says. “Hi, my name is Rae.”
Okay, no. I didn’t say it the first time, I’m definitely not doing it again.
“And I lost my brother sixteen years ago.” She smiles and then looks at Susan, sitting on her right. “Susan, would you like to go next?”
Susan puffs up happily. Barf. I focus on the new dude, holding hands with Dale. Dale has been coming for a while, he came in with Susan and Tom and all the others, and he’s talked about his husband once or twice; this must be him. Kind of weird they didn’t come in at the same time—like, Dale’s husband has to be starting from the beginning, right? So he might still be in the Numb stage, which is first right before the Initial Revelation stage and the aforementioned blubbery Why Why stage. He’s probably got two weeks at least before he’s going to catch up with everybody else. But we can add that to the ever-growing list of things Rae doesn’t seem to mind, I guess. After Susan we move onto Mark, followed by Tom, Jean, Sierra, Jill, Dale, then the husband, Donnie, Donnie and Dale, they sound like they should be hitting the road with their bluegrass double-act, Jesus—they lost their son Sebastian about five months ago, and now everybody’s looking at me. Well, almost everyone is looking. Rae looks more like she’s regarding, and Susan is openly scowling. I meant it when I said I never said anything I thought aloud to her, but I did laugh a little bit when she’d told us about how her dolphin-husband came to her in a dream, and used his dolphin-beak to…well, fuck her, basically, and how she was so certain that it really was him and he was trying to tell her something. And I laughed because A), The more I hear Susan talk the more I think she might just be craving sex, which like, that’s fine but then just go have sex, and B), because there’s no way her husband could’ve come to her in her dreams. He’s Gone.
I tried to turn the laugh into a cough, but I don’t think I did a very good job.
Everyone’s eyes are still on me, so I swallow my sigh. “Hi, my name’s Laura, and—”
“Hi, Laura,” the group choruses, and I blink, once, slowly so they can’t see the eye roll I’m holding back.
“—and my sister walked into the sea five hundred and forty-eight days ago.”
“You keep track in days?” Donnie is looking at me with his eyebrows raised. I shrug.
“By counting them,” I say. Kind of a stupid question, isn’t it?
“That’s all?” He says.
The hell does he mean, “that’s all”? Am I not counting right for you, Donnie? What, should I keep track by carving tally marks into the bottoms of my feet, so no one can see them but I can feel the pain for every day she’s been Gone? Give me a break.
“That actually gives us a great starting point for tonight’s conversation,” Rae says. She has just saved Donnie. From me. “Whenever we have new members we always share that loss info about ourselves, so that everyone in group has a little context for what everyone else is going through. It reminds us that even though we’re not alone, everyone’s circumstances aren’t cookie-cutter either. Right?” Nods ripple around the circle. “And one way we can acknowledge that is through the passage of time,” Rae continues. “Because for some of us, it’s been a few weeks, and for others—” her eyes flick to me and then go back to scanning the circle, “it’s been over a year. And the way that we process and think about that time can affect the way we feel about the person who’s Gone. Think about your own circumstances. Think about how you’ve chosen to measure the time. Why do you think that is?” Rae looks down at her knees, which is her giving us the go-ahead to do some soul searching. I’m not really interested, but I guess she is running at the whole “time” thing differently than she has before. Why do I keep track in days?
Why do I keep track in days?
Why do I keep track in days?
It has been 6,570 days since Charlotte and I found the whale corpse in the cave. There was a beach two blocks from our house. After school before it got too cold, me and Charlotte would go, just the two of us. Exploring. That’s the part Charlotte liked, anyway. Climbing cliffs, walking on tree limbs, getting stuck in a “cave” that was really just a crack that was trying too hard, stuff like that. We found one crack that opened up into a real cave, once, a cove, really, and there was a half-rotted whale carcass in there. The second I saw it I wanted to leave, the smell was un-fucking-believable, roadkill times a thousand, pungent, sickly, nasty. I can still taste it in the back of my throat if I think about it too hard. But Charlotte had to investigate, get close, poke it with a stick.
We had to go back every day after that, too. Every day till the sand and the water wore away the whale’s flesh and it was just a pile of salt-bleached, greasy bones.
I never wondered who that whale used to be.
Why do I keep track in—oh for fuck’s sake, it doesn’t matter!
I keep my eyes down so I look like I’m thinking. I wonder if I can turn around and look at the clock under the pretense of cracking my back. Group only goes for an hour and a half, after all. We’ve probably killed at least ten minutes.
“What does everybody think?” Rae asks, signaling the end of Contemplation Time. As if on cue, Susan’s hand—which she’s trained to look tentative, she does this weird little bobbing thing where it looks like she’s not sure she really wants to put it up, but her hand is literally always the first one up when Rae asks a question, so like sit down, Susan, you’re not fooling anybody—and Rae sees her and kind of smiles and I settle back in my chair because I’m expecting we’ll be regaled with another tale akin to being dream-fucked by a dolphin beak, but then Rae says, “I absolutely love your enthusiasm, Susan, but why don’t we start with our new member, and then we can go around the circle and have everybody share their thoughts.” She looks brightly at Donnie. “Would you like to kick us off?”
Donnie leans forward. “Sure.” He takes a deep breath and looks at his folded hands. With the amount of time we all seem to spend looking down, you almost wish the floor was a little more interesting. “I account for the time that has passed since losing Sebastian in weeks because…I think because that’s kind of how I’ve been living since it happened. Week to week. Like, I tell myself every Monday that if I can just make it to Friday, if I can do everything I need to do then on Friday after work I can just go home. I can go home and be with Dale and just be by ourselves, and do what I need to do, but not have to do everything. And then on the next Monday I start the process over again. So…yeah.”
Not the world’s strongest finish, but honestly, I was a little impressed he was able to put so much thought into it in three minutes. Rae smiles at him.
“Thank you, Donnie. Dale?” Dale parrots, essentially, what Donnie says, and Tom says something about months just making the most sense because it hasn’t been quite a year yet, and a few other people kind of say the same thing he does and I’m wondering if Rae feels like this is backfiring, it seems to me like it might be backfiring, and I drift in and out during Susan’s explanation because it’s long and mostly bullshit, Susan, the “equation” you use to calculate how to keep track of time doesn’t make any sense, are you actually trying to win at therapy by making yourself sound smarter? No one’s buying it, Susan. Except Rae—she eats it up, so maybe Susan is winning at therapy, who knows. And now it’s my turn.
Oh. It’s my turn. Rae is looking at me. “Laura? Care to share?”
No. No I do not, but I think she knows that.
“Laura?” Rae prompts again. I fold my arms and lean back in my chair, crossing my legs.
“It’s just what makes the most sense to me.” Full stop. And maybe it sounds hollow, and now there’s an awkward silence and Susan is raising her eyebrows at me, up yours, Susan, I’ve spoken. I talked. Goal reached. You’re welcome.
Rae is still regarding me. “Anything you want to add?”
“Nope.” I keep my voice neutral, borderline cheerful, this is working, Rae, don’t you worry. Rae looks down briefly, and when she looks back up she smiles, and moves on. I’m only half-listening. I think she’s started building on the “why” of time with some tips on how to process the time, or whatever, and it doesn’t take long for Susan to start up with some helpful tips and tricks of her own. Well, congrats, Susan. You are definitely winning at therapy.
“Can I ask a question?”
Now that’s interesting. Donnie just interrupted Rae. Nobody ever really interrupts Rae.
“Of course,” she says.
“What if—what if we were pretty sure we knew which, well, what if we knew who our whale was? Like what if we could tell which whale used to be Sebastian?”
“Donnie.” Dale says it so quietly that I’m not sure anyone but me can hear him. He goes for Donnie’s hand and Donnie flicks him away.
“No, I want to know. See,” he looks back at Rae, and I don’t want to say that he was looking at her with crazy eyes. I mean, the dude lost his son. But I lost close family too and I don’t look at Rae the way Donnie is looking at her, I don’t think. Then again, how do I know? Who am I going to ask? Susan? No, thank you.
Maybe Donnie’s eyes just stand out because the rest of him is so put together. Dale, I’ve decided, is kind of a flannel and jeans dude, like he dresses like a not-cool dad, but Donnie dresses like a cool dad, with linen pants and printed short-sleeve button-downs (the one he’s wearing has dolphins on it, that’s not weird at all) front-tucked into the pants to hide the paunch I feel like he got recently because the front-tuck isn’t doing much to hide it. Like he looks like the kind of guy who might take you to Mykonos, but he’s just as likely to take you to Applebee’s. That, with crazy eyes.
“We’ve been to a few different places, Dale and me,” Donnie goes on, “And we’ve talked to a bunch of different shrinks and group leaders and I keep asking the same question and no one has been able to answer me. So,” he raises his eyebrows at Rae, “what if we know?”
Dale leans back in his chair and stares ahead. “You promised if I brought you you wouldn’t do this,” he says in that same quiet way. I still don’t think anyone else can hear him, even though everyone else in the group is taking turns staring at him, then Donnie, then Rae. Including me—this is interesting.
Rae’s quiet, looking at the floor. She’s quiet, everybody’s quiet for what feels like forever. I don’t get why she doesn’t just shut him down and move on. Cause like, it’s bullshit? There’s no way to know. There’s a lot about the nature of whales and the Gone that’s foggy, but one thing everyone can agree on is that once somebody goes into the water, there’s no way to tell who a whale used to be. There are no birthmarks, no defining features, nothing that sticks around from the person they were. Scientists and philosophers and whoever else feels like having an opinion thinks they know what someone will turn into when they go, see Susan and her dolphin-fuckery. But really, no one knows for sure what someone who’s Gone will turn into. And once they’re Gone, it’s not like we can ask.
Most of us—I guess I shouldn’t say most, but everybody who’s come through group, anyway—have gotten a note. It’s been five hundred and forty-seven days since I got Charlotte’s. Her roommate didn’t find it until the day after she went in. Want to hear something messed up? I was on the beach when the roommate called. Looking for beach glass. I have a bottle on my desk that’s almost full. “Goblin.” That’s what Charlotte used to call me. Because I liked to collect things at the beach instead of explore. She addressed me as that in her goddamn note: Dear Goblin, she wrote, I want you to know that this has nothing to do with you. It’s me. Which like, cool. Great. What does that even mean? It’s me, and it’s not even like I’m unhappy, exactly. I’m just…I’m bored. This world, this life, it’s all just so boring. Even the people, even you. I know you don’t mean to be, but it’s true. It’s not your fault. It just is. I don’t believe in afterlife; actually dying sounds really boring too. And I want to know what it’s like. To be Gone. So I’m going to give it a try. Tell Mom and Dad for me, won’t you? You’re better at that stuff than I am. Good luck in whatever you try to pursue. -Charlie. “Try it.” Like it was reversible. Wish me the best—what was this, a work email? And I got to tell our parents. Lucky me.
“There’s a pod of Common Porpoises that’s been hanging around the state park. And there’s one porpoise that looks smaller than the others and—and I just know. It’s him.”
This meeting is going off the rails, but Rae is still calm. She folds her hands in her lap. “I want you to know that I hear you,” she begins.
Oh jeez. Okay, I’m clearly no expert at therapy, but even I can tell that any sentence a therapist starts like that is not going to end well.
“I hear you, and I completely understand how you feel. And you might be right! The small porpoise could certainly be Sebastian. But Donnie, I understand that this is your first time at our group, but I’d encourage you to take a step back and think about how this line of action is hurting your partner.” Donnie snaps his head around to look at Dale, who’s staring straight ahead, fists white knuckling it in his lap. “You talked about me to these people?” Donnie hisses.
Well shit, Donnie, nobody asked you to come. ‘These people.’ Jackass.
“Group is a safe space to discuss any and all impacts the Gone have had on our lives and those of our loved ones,” Rae says. Very diplomatic. “Dale, along with everyone here, has been making excellent progress in processing their grief in a positive, constructive way.” I wonder if Rae really means to include me in that estimation. Probably not. “I’d love to help you make as much progress as Dale has, but I have to ask you to meet me halfway here. I know it’s difficult when you think you see your Gone, but—”
“I don’t ‘think’ the porpoise is Sebastian, I know it is.”
This is definitely not going to end well.
Donnie and Rae still won’t drop the subject; Rae tries to redirect him three or four more times. I look back at the clock and it’s been another fifteen minutes. Dale is full-on hiding his head in his hands, now, and, I’m sorry, but like, excuse me, Dale? If you knew he was going to do this, why did you bring him here to waste all of our time? Then again, I think he bullied Dale into bringing him. I guess I kind of understand that, though. Fifty-nine days ago that’s basically what Miles did to me; he’s not really much of an ultimatum guy, at least he wasn’t up until that point, but I think it all got to be too much for him, maybe. Can’t blame him for that. But I didn’t want to lose him either, not really. So here I am. Bullied in, but also, not really. Miles isn’t like Donnie. And I don’t think I’m like Dale.
Donnie is now listing all the things this specific porpoise has done since he started tracking it that makes him believe—or, I’m sorry, that confirms he knows—that it’s his son, everything from the porpoise definitely waving at him (fucking please, Donnie) to a mark below the porpoise’s right eye that matches a birthmark Sebastian had on his face. How did he even get close enough to notice something like that? Did he rent a boat? He must’ve rented a boat. I kind of want to ask him if he rented a boat, but he’s still listing and Rae is watching him with this patient little smile on her face. He shows no signs of slowing down and Rae shows no signs of stopping him, even though I can’t be the only person in the room who’s feeling over it at this point. I know Dale definitely is.
Donnie finally wraps up his list and sits back in his chair.
Rae actually sounds a little irritated. Appropriate, I guess, but still. Yikes. “I really would like to discuss this with you further, Donnie, but I’m afraid for the moment we have to move on.”
Donnie huffs. “Fine. Don’t believe me, I don’t really care if you do or not, but I know that it’s true.”
“Right,” she says, and she smiles around at us, “we were discussing the passage of time. Tracking it is an inevitability, because you can’t help but think of the last time you saw someone. Often, we look back on that last time and we’re filled with sorrow, regret, longing. These are all perfectly normal things to feel.”
Here we go. Irritating as Donnie turned out to be, at least his outburst broke up the usual song-and-dance. Regret. Grief. Sorrow. Repeat. The last interaction I had with Charlotte was a “HaHa” reaction to a meme she texted me. Whatever. There’s nothing I can do about it except try to live with it, so that’s what I’m going to do. This is supposed to be helping me do that. It does not fucking help.
“I have another question,” Donnie says.
That tone. Donnie just whipped out a “Can I speak to the manager?” voice. Rae hesitates for just a second before answering him. “Why don’t we leave questions until the end of group today? For the sake of time.”
“It’s not a question for you,” Donnie says.
Wow. I never thought I would meet someone that I liked less than I like Susan, but here we are. “Don, please,” Dale says, a little louder, because he’s talking with his face still hidden in his hands. Donnie ignores him. Shocker.
“Doesn’t it bother any of you?” Donnie asks.
Dude, we are in therapy. You are going to have to be more specific.
“Does what bother us?” Susan sighs.
Leave it to Susan. Are we about to have some kind of suburban-spouse street brawl? I hope so.
“Doesn’t it bother you that they’re not really gone?”
It’s quiet. I look around the room to see if anyone else gets what Donnie’s saying. There’s a lot of blank looks.
“Not really gone?” Susan repeats. “What do you mean, not really gone? Of course they’re Gone, that’s the nature of—of what happened—”
“No,” Donnie’s getting a little testy now, “they’re not. They’re not dead! For god’s sake, that’s the entire reason why we say they’re Gone and not dead, because they’re not actually dead!”
“But they’re still gone from us,” Sierra pipes up. Kind of sudden; she’s almost as quiet as me, I think mostly because every time she tries to talk she starts to cry. Her eyes are welling up now, in fact. “Same difference.”
“No, it is not the same,” Donnie snaps.
“Okay—” Rae says, and it’s different from how she said it before, much more damage control, “okay, let’s put a pin in this discussion until afterwards, shall we? Let’s—”
“It’s not the same because they’re still out there,” Donnie says, “They’re out there, still living, and if any of you really cared about them you’d work harder at seeing them again. I think that we as a society have become complacent with the nature of the Gone.”
Wow. Look at you, with your big-boy words.
“We have! We’ve become complacent and we all subscribe to this belief that just because they’re Gone, they’re unreachable. And I refuse to believe it! I refuse to believe that I will never see or speak to my son again.” His voice starts to shake a little and I’m telling myself not to laugh, but the bullshit is coming from his mouth in waves and I snort, and there’s no covering it up as a cough this time, not a chance. Donnie glares at me. “Are you laughing?” He sounds scandalized. He probably has every right to be.
“A little bit, yeah,” I say.
Donnie rounds on Rae. “Are you going to allow this?” He snaps.
In Rae’s defense, I usually keep these things to myself. “She’s allowed you this far, so I don’t see why not.”
“Excuse me?” Donnie says.
Oh, I should stop talking. I should stop talking, that’s a thing I should do.
“You know, I’m starting to realize why Dale never brought you to group. You want to get mad about me laughing, fine, but at least I keep my shit to myself.” Usually. Whoops. “You come in here and start spouting nonsense to try and get people’s hopes up over things that aren’t true.” I can feel Rae’s eyes on me as the words come pouring out and I kind of care, Jesus Christ, Laura, shut up! But I can’t. and honestly, it feels good.
I didn’t think it was possible for Donnie to get more indignant, but here he is, doing his best.
“You don’t know that it isn’t true—”
“And you don’t know that it is.”
“Well if we weren’t so quick to give up, then maybe we could find a way—”
“To find a way to communicate with them, but you can’t, I know, I tried.”
It’s quiet, and it’s not contemplative quiet or even stunned quiet but it’s like a deeply fucked up quiet, shared-trauma quiet, coming to a head quiet. And everyone’s staring at me.
I think I’ve missed my chance to shut up.
“I think everybody is interested in whales on some level, you know? Whether they want to admit it or not. Because if you go any other way, I mean, you die. You’re dead. You blow your brains out, take a bunch of pills, you, I don’t know, you sit in your garage with the car running, and that’s it, goodnight. But if you go in the water, you’re not dead, exactly. You’re Gone. Obviously.”
There’s a general sucking in of disgusted breaths when I talk about suicide in other methods—not super fashionable, you know—but that’s the truth, isn’t it? Let’s lay out some fucking truths. So I keep going.
“And this, I mean, you guys know this because it’s so nice to think about, so easy to swallow: that whole idea of them being ‘at peace’, right? If this life isn’t working then you let the ocean swallow you whole and you get to be “peaceful,” like Humpbacks, or “playful,” like Belugas. But you know what I think,” Another snort escapes me and I wonder if I have crazy eyes like Donnie’s were earlier, I probably do but I don’t want to stop and ask, “I think it’s funny how no one mentions that you can also end up ‘murderous,’ like Orcas who tip those little baby seals off icebergs in the documentaries, or ‘slutty,’ like how Susan imagines her dolphin-husband.” Susan’s not wearing pearls, but she clutches them anyway; Jean reaches out to touch her shoulder and glares at me. Okay, too far. Sorry Susan. “But everybody still insists that there must be peace, they always wish for peace, Rae, you always say on day one that on some level our loved ones have found peace.” Rae nods at me, and she doesn’t look mad, exactly, that I’ve gone Full Donnie and derailed the group, but she doesn’t look thrilled, either. Oh well. “Well you know what? I don’t wish for peace for Charlotte. I hope she gets in a turf war with a bigger whale and loses. I hope when she tries to eat the other whales screw her out of her fair share.”
Donnie leans forward and opens his mouth. “That doesn’t answer—”
“Oh, give me a minute, Donnie! I’m getting there, I’m getting there.” Jesus, my voice just went up like seven octaves. But I do have something else to say. “You were talking about how complacent we all are, right? How we should try harder to find our loved ones because they’re not unreachable? Been there! You go to the beach or the pier or the cliff or whatever, wherever it is they fucked off into the ocean from and you walk and walk and walk and walk and maybe you do see a whale or a dolphin or a porpoise, like you could even tell, like you really know, but there’s no way to know if one of them is your son or your husband or your sister because they’re just eating and shitting and fucking and swimming, and only come back to the world they left to breathe. Because they left, Donnie. They couldn’t take it, take us anymore, so they left. And maybe they’re right there and maybe they’re not, but it doesn’t matter because we can’t speak whale, and they don’t speak English. In the end, they left because they didn’t fucking want us. And we have to learn how to live with that.”
More silence. Well. I’m probably—definitely—losing at therapy, but it looks like I might be winning at deep-seated psychological trauma. Neat.
“Maybe they’re not dead, but they’re unreachable. They’re Gone. In the end, it’s the same thing.”
I don’t know why we ever started saying “Gone” in the first place. Maybe to give people like Donnie hope. But Charlotte is Gone, and she can stay that way for all I care.
“I—” Donnie starts haltingly, and I’m just like, man, really? We can’t just let it go? “I think—I think you’re wrong,” he says. “Sebastian is out there, and I…”
He’s still talking, but you know what? I’m not doing this. I stand up. “You’re right. You’re right. He’s out there, and he’s still Gone.” I pull my jacket from the back of my chair and throw it around my shoulders. “They’re all out there, but they’re Gone. Make your peace with it.”
I walk towards the stairs, getting out of the basement of the goddamn maritime museum. I look at the clock. It’s been an hour.
Well. Congratulations, Rae. You have half an hour to salvage this thing. Good luck.
I take the stairs two at a time and walk between the maritime exhibits, flipping Beulah off on my way out. I’m heading through the parking lot and I could get in my car and go home and sit on the couch next to Miles and lie about why group got out early, but instead I walk past my car and keep walking, into the darkness up the road that I know is a dead end, with some scrub grass and patchy dirt serving as the only barrier between me and the sea. How poetic.
It has been sixty days since I last stood on the shore, on any shore. It wasn’t this ugly patch by the maritime museum, but the pretty stretch of beach in the next town over, where Charlotte had been living, where I ended up after I got her letter. I stayed there for four hundred and eighty-eight days. Walking. Looking. Watching, and when I saw them, the whales it was like—not hope, really, but this like, fuck you mentality. I was going to get some answers out of Charlotte or die trying, and I probably would have. Do you know what it feels like, to be obsessed with something? And I don’t mean like “I like puppies a lot” obsessed, I’m talking throw-down-I’ll-fight-you-absolutely-apeshit-every-waking-moment obsessed. Can’t-sleep-stomach-hurts-lose-thirty-pounds obsessed. Stop returning your boyfriend’s increasingly frantic phone calls obsessed. Jump in the water. Become an Orca. Hunt Charlotte down and bite off her tail. Obsessed.
That’s about where I was at. Where I’ve been at. Hell, maybe where I still am at, because now here I am on this nasty little beach behind the maritime museum and the waves are soaking the toes of my sneakers and I still, kind of, want to walk in and bite off Charlotte’s tail. It’s been five hundred and forty-eight days, and I’m still so mad at her.
Headlights swing around the curve that leads back to the museum, and I only notice them because I suddenly have a shadow. I turn as the car parks behind me and the driver gets out. It takes a second for my eyes to adjust, but then I recognize the maxi skirt silhouette. Rae.
Fuck me. I look back at the water. If I make a run for it, I bet Rae wouldn’t catch me. I mean, she’s wearing a maxi skirt. But then Rae’s right here, and she grabs my arm—hard. This woman has a Kung-Fu grip. “Get in, Laura,” she says. She sounds tired. I guess I don’t blame her, but still.
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
“Get. In the fucking. Car.”
Fuck me, she just swore. “No. Thank you.”
“Are you—you know what? Fine.” She adjusts her grip on my arm and looks at me, not with what I’m now realizing must be a carefully cultivated look of pleasant expectation like she does in group, but with genuine impatience. Still, she doesn’t seem pissed. Just tired.
“What are you doing?”
“Keeping an eye on you. You think I don’t know what you’re thinking about?” She hooks her arm through mine and clenches tight. Seriously, what’s with the CrossFit arms?
“You’ve been coming to therapy for eight weeks and just had the outburst of the century. Give me some credit, will you?”
She looks out at the water and we just stand here. I’m afraid of what her CrossFit arms will do to me if I try to escape.
But. One of us has to say something.
“This was probably my last night at group.” It’s not a question and I’m not trying to be funny, but Rae laughs anyway.
“Yeah. Yeah, I definitely think it was.”
Ouch. That hurt more than I thought it would. “I’m…sorry.”
That was lame. But I don’t really know what else to say.
“Yeah. You probably should be,” Rae sighs, but she doesn’t sound mad. Maybe she isn’t that mad? I don’t know why I care about this, but I don’t really want her to be mad at me.
“Are you mad at me?”
And the former queen of keeping her mouth shut pops off another stupid question. What is wrong with me?
“I’m not thrilled with you,” Rae says. “You went off in front of a group of extremely vulnerable people and probably undid weeks of progress.”
“Now you know why I don’t talk during group.”
“Then why did you tonight?”
It’s a really pointed question and we’re not in group, so I guess I owe her an answer.
“I—I don’t know, man. Donnie was—he’s just wrong. I mean, he is wrong, right? Can you and I agree he’s fucking wrong?” He’s wrong. I’m wrong. It’d be easier if she’d just confirm that neither of us has any idea what we’re doing.
“Of course he’s wrong, but you didn’t really need to point it out in front of everyone.”
Ouch. You know how people say when your like, hopes are dashed, it feels like a balloon popped in your chest, or whatever? Accurate. But I guess I knew it was coming, didn’t I?
“But in a way, I’m kind of glad you did. I think you made a breakthrough tonight.”
A breakthrough? The fuck is she talking about, a breakthrough? “What do you mean?”
She looks at me. “You’re really angry with your sister, aren’t you?”
Angry? Is that even in the ballpark anymore? Angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. ‘Mad’ feels closer, harder, sharper, its shortness matching this stabbing feeling in my stomach that I get whenever I think of Charlotte, but I don’t think ‘mad’ covers it either. At least, not in the more traditional sense. Maybe in the crazy sense. Shit, can you feel crazy? Crazy enough to walk into the sea? Maybe ‘crazy’ is wrong too. I don’t think the people who walk in are crazy. That’s not it. It’s not like you can just wander into the ocean and boom, you’re a whale now. They’ve done tests on that. There has to be some kind of intention behind it. And like—an ability to let go, I guess.
Let go. That’s funny. “Something like that,” I say. It’s lame. Again.
“Right.” I know and so does Rae. We stand some more. In silence. There are more waves.
My feet are getting cold.
“Well, now what?” I ask. Rae snorts.
“That’s really up to you, isn’t it?” She says that, but she tightens her grip on my arm. Okay.
“So you’re just going to stand here with me—what, forever?”
“After all you’ve been through, do you really still want to go in?”
I know why she says it. It’s a tactic she uses in group, I’ve been around long enough to notice.
What happens if you do it?
That’s easy. Swimming. Fucking. Shitting. Breathing. Tail-biting, if I’m lucky. Peace, if Rae is to be believed.
What happens if you don’t?
Miles. Well, he’d keep happening, anyway. But probably not group therapy. But Miles. That—that would be good. I could test it, the next five hundred and forty-eight days. See how they treat me. The sea will always be there.
More headlights swing in behind us, and I turn to look at them. “Miles,” Rae says, pulling her arm from mine. “I called him.”
Miles puts his car in park and gets out, walks around the front to lean against the hood. He’s backlit, and I can’t see his face.
“How’d you get his number?”
“Emergency contact form you filled out your first day of group.” Rae rummages in her shoulder bag. “Let’s be clear,” she says, “you are never coming back to group again.” She stops looking and holds something out to me; a business card, with her name embossed in silver, followed by a phone number and an address. “But I’d be willing to meet with you privately so we can discuss your breakthrough further.”
I know I must be looking at her like she has six heads, but I honestly can’t believe what she just said.
“Call me if you want to set up an appointment.” She lets go of me completely and heads back up the beach. I think she nods at Miles as she goes. I thought he’d come down to get me once she left—tag in, make sure the crazy girl doesn’t make a break for the ocean—but he doesn’t. He stays backlit by his car. Waiting. If I wanted to run, I could do it. I doubt he’d get to me in time. My sneakers are completely soaked.
I’m looking at Miles, but I can hear the waves behind me, big ones out on the water and little ones lapping at my feet, soft breathing, in and out. I used to think if I held still enough, I could hear the whale song over the water. Charlotte told me that, when we were kids. Fucking stupid, but what’re you going to do? Charlotte wasn’t a very good singer, but she could imitate a whale song like no other. I doubt it’s changed much, now.
I’ve been looking at Miles for a long time. I don’t think I’ve blinked. Kind of weird, but oh well. Kind of weird has been the normal for a while, and he’s stuck around.
A big wave comes in, rushes up around my ankles, over the tops of my shoes to soak the hems of my jeans.
Day one. Of the next five hundred and forty-eight.
About the Author
Elizabeth Trueblood is a first year PhD student studying fiction in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previous publication credits include KAIROS (“Paper Airplanes,” August 2018), Blackberry Winter (“Killing Games,” March 2018), and Windmill (“In Spite of Everything,” September 2018), among others. Elizabeth is a feminist, theatre enthusiast, and novice cheese aficionado; in addition to writing she enjoys acting, cooking, and spending time with her loved ones.