THE coffin looked almost child sized. It could have appeared smaller than it was due to how far away I was hidden, but I was willing to bet she had chosen a kid’s coffin. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought, however disrespectful it might be to laugh at a funeral. It’s not like it mattered. He was dead. He couldn’t hear.
I could picture her at the funeral home, wringing her hands and pacing back and forth. She wouldn’t have cried. I was sure she still hadn’t. It might be weeks before she cried, if ever. No matter how lonely she would be without him, she wouldn’t let her emotions betray her faith that her husband was in Heaven. Still, she would have felt guilt-ridden at the prospect of burying him in a child’s coffin. Grandpa had always been self-conscious about his tiny stature. However, he had been equally concerned with never spending a dime more than absolutely necessary, no matter how many millions of dimes he had to his name. Apparently, his frugalness had won out. As much as I wished I could just feel angry, a twinge of guilt tightened my chest, knowing that she had gone through all of this alone.
The obituary Sonia had shoved in my face yesterday as I went out for a swim had simply said that Marvin Alexander Wright had died at home at the age of seventy-five from colon cancer complications, and that he was survived by his wife, Beverly, his daughter, Jessica, and his grandson, Brett. It hadn’t bothered to say if it had been a long battle or if there had been much suffering. Maybe he had already been sick when he disowned me two years ago. I found it odd that the obituary had mentioned my mother. Her name hadn’t been brought up more than a handful of times in my entire life. It seemed presumptuous to assume Jessica had survived him. We had all taken for granted that she was dead. The thought that she had somehow seen the obituary and was now somewhere close by, secretly watching the service, made the hair on the back of my hands stand up.
A warm gust blew the veil back over Grandma’s simple black hat. She reached up and quickly pulled it back into place. Even from this distance, I could see she had gotten smaller, a feat which I wouldn’t have thought possible. She didn’t look sick, though. Considering the speed with which she had readjusted her veil, it didn’t seem like she was any worse for the wear.
I had arrived less than ten minutes ago, and I was already antsy to leave. The longer I stayed, the greater the chance someone would turn in my direction. Standing between the ancient pine and the shelter of a gothic-inspired tomb, I felt fairly camouflaged, but a man my size tended to draw attention. Plus, there didn’t seem to be any point to staying. I knew I wasn’t going to suddenly change my mind and run, bawling like a baby, to Grandma’s arms. She would be fine. She was tough, and I was certain the other women of the church would make sure she wasn’t alone for long periods of time. I was ready for the day to be over, and it wasn’t even two in the afternoon.
Today had been weird. Actually, the past two weeks had been weird. At first, I thought I was having eye problems, seeing strange things floating off in my peripheral vision. This morning, however, it was a lot more than just seeing something. The feeling that I was starting to go crazy was only heightened by the fact that I was hiding in a graveyard in the middle of the day.
I glanced again at my grandmother. Despite everything, I still loved her, and I hated that I couldn’t be there for her right now. She had sided with him, though, when he’d made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t welcome in their home until I turned from my vile ways. Even if I’d been willing to, he’d never be able to count me as his grandson again. I hoped her God, the one I used to believe in, would be able to help her not feel alone.
After walking the half mile to where I had strategically parked my car, I slipped in and floored the gas. My tires squealed in protest. I quickly jerked my foot off the pedal and hoped the sound hadn’t carried to the funeral service. Surely not.
As I wove around Torrey Pines Drive, I couldn’t help but remember how much I had once loved it here. The cliffs in La Jolla were still my favorite place in the world, at least on days where there weren’t a million San Diego tourists ruining the serenity. Everything else here, though, now left a bitter sensation in my gut. The gorgeous West Coast mansions, the exclusive shops, everything. Everything except the ocean. No matter what memories came flooding back, the ocean could never be tainted.
THOUGHTS of the morning and the implications of my grandfather’s death occupied my mind during the twenty-minute drive back to my quaint little bungalow in Hillcrest. Without realizing it, I had parked, gotten out of the car, and had my key turning in the front door. Before I felt the lock click out of the way, the door flew open, and Sonia accosted me. Her strength never ceased to amaze me. I marveled at the power in her tiny body as she wrapped her arms around my neck and forcefully pulled my head down nearly a foot so she could kiss my cheek.
“Oh, Brett, sweetie. How ya doin’, hon?”
I pulled some of her long strands of black hair out of my mouth. “Aside from having my head nearly pulled off, I’m doing good, thanks.”
As if not hearing me, or maybe because she heard me, she squeezed her arms tighter around my head, and my ear folded uncomfortably. In one swift move, she grabbed my hand and pulled me through the door.
“So, tell me all about it. Was it a beautiful service?”
I gave her an exasperated look. “Sonia, I told you I wasn’t going to actually attend the service.” I tossed my keys on the Craftsman table by the door. They bounced and hit the picture of Sonia as a little girl with a hideous dog. “I keep telling you I’m gonna break that picture if you leave it there.”
She ignored my attempt at a subject change and followed me into the living room, where I had already stretched out on the couch. “You didn’t even say anything to your grandmother?”
“Sonia, don’t start, okay?”
“But, Brett, she really needs you right now.” She pushed my feet off the end of the couch and sat down cross-legged.
“You’ve never even met her. She’ll be fine. She’s a strong old cookie.” I swung my feet back up and plopped them in her lap. I waggled my eyebrows. “As long as you’re there….”
She rolled her eyes and once again swiped my feet to the floor. “You could have at least taken your shoes off first.”
“I thought Chinese girls were supposed to be subservient.”
“And I thought big, strong, macho men weren’t supposed to be afraid of their grandmothers.” She stuck out her tongue.
In spite of myself, I laughed. “I’m not afraid of her.”
I looked at Sonia, momentarily paused in my defense by a sweeping rush of gratefulness to her. Whether brought on by the events of the day or simply being tired and sentimental, the truth was I loved this girl more than anyone in the world. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t tell her. I had barely graduated college when I had been kicked out of my grandparents’ house. I didn’t have a job and barely had any money. Answering her online ad for a roommate, I almost left when I saw how nice her house was. I knew there was no way I could afford it. She told me her parents had put a huge down payment on the house for her twenty-first birthday and that she just needed someone else to help with the small monthly payments. Small for San Diego, at any rate. She let me live there rent-free for nearly three months until I started getting paychecks from my job as a lifeguard—one more decision my grandfather never would have understood or supported. It wasn’t like he contributed to the cost of my bachelor’s in psychology. I failed to see how my choosing to “go another direction” would affect him. Sonia, on the other hand, supported my decisions. Immediately, it felt like we had known each other our entire lives.
“Did you at least wait till they had left so you could put some flowers on his grave?”
“Nah.” I flicked my hand, waving her off. “I’ll go back some other time.” She opened her mouth, getting ready to respond, but I cut her off. “So you’re not going to believe what happened when I went swimming near Blacks Beach this morning.”
As I knew it would, the mention of the ocean caught her attention. “Brett, I’ve never understood why you are so careless. You’re going to drown.”
I shrugged. “It’s only a few miles. I never swim out far enough that I can’t see land.” That wasn’t exactly the truth, but I figured I didn’t need to worry her any more than I already did.
Her voice rose slightly. “I don’t care! That’s never safe! Especially with what’s been going on lately with your eyes when you’re in the water. What if you get disoriented? What if you get startled by something and hit your head and pass out?”
I let out another laugh. “What am I going to hit my head on in the middle of the ocean? A shark?”
Her eyes narrowed. Sonia’s fear of sharks was beyond irrational. She couldn’t even get in a swimming pool unless accompanied by someone else. “That’s not funny.”
I grinned at her.
She gave me the finger. “So what did happen? Could you tell what you were seeing?”
“I’ve told you, there is nothing there to see. It’s in my mind. I’m going nuts! I need to see a shrink or something.”
“No argument there.”
“Really, what did you see?” She leaned forward and placed both hands on my knees.
I couldn’t suppress a shudder. I had always lived in the water. I felt safer in the ocean than I did on land. The fish and sea animals always swam with me, and it was never a problem. I had even received scholarships to college by joining the swimming team. The training to be a lifeguard almost wasn’t fair to the others who were trying to get the job—it was like they were competing against a fish. Never once had I felt a moment of fear or trepidation in the water, until lately. “I didn’t see anything different, just the same stuff. Flashes of faces and arms, once in a while something that looks like a gold fishtail. But today….” I shuddered again and took a deep breath. “Today, I felt something.”
Sonia’s violet eyes grew impossibly wide. “You felt something?” Poor girl, she would never go into a pool again after this conversation.
“Yeah, at first I thought I was feeling some stray seaweed or something—light little touches on my arms and back, sometimes my stomach. Each time, I stopped swimming and looked around in the water, but I never saw anything.”
She shuddered at the mention of looking around in the water.
“I kept swimming, but I started heading back in. I was only a few hundred feet from shore when something grabbed me.”
With a little yelp, Sonia shrank back into the cushions of the couch. Her voice was barely audible. “What was it?”
“I don’t know. But?and I know this sounds crazy?but it felt like… like a hand.”
“A hand?” The absurdity of it seemed to make her momentarily come out of her fear. She had probably been expecting some huge sea monster’s tentacle or something. “Like a human hand?”
“Yeah. Around my ankle.” I glanced at the floor and then back up to her. “And that’s not the weirdest part….” My voice trailed off, and my gaze once again returned to the floor.
She leaned forward once more, her hands clutched in her lap. “What? What happened?”
I shook my head. “I caught on fire.”
She cocked her head. “You caught on fire? Under the water?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“But, sweetie, that’s not possible.” Her voice took on a soothing quality, as if comforting a child after a nightmare. “And, even if it were, you’re fine. You’re not burned.”
“I know, I know. Maybe that’s the wrong way to say it, but it was like I was on fire. I was completely surrounded by flames. I’m pretty sure even the water around me got warmer.” It was my turn to try to sink into the couch cushions. “And, even crazier, is that I think it came from me.”
She gawked at me, her hair making curtains over her cheeks and falling nearly to her waist.
I shrugged again. “What?”
“Brett, I don’t think you should go swimming for a while. You need to relax. You’re seeing things in the water, your grandfather just died—you’ve got to be stressed like crazy.” Her expression went from deadly serious to playful in a flash. “Plus, how long has it been since you’ve gotten laid? Two years? That’s gotta do something to ya!”
I whipped the cushion from behind my back and chucked it at her head. “It hasn’t even been five months!”
“Oh, honey, if I had to wait five months, I’d be feeling things grabbin’ for me too.”
“Right! Like you could make it a week!”
She got up and headed to the kitchen. On her way, she tossed her hair, glanced back over her shoulder, and batted her eyes. “Just ’cause you’re not interested, don’t mean there isn’t a line of other gorgeous men lined up around the block.”
“Don’t I know it!”
I heard her open and close the refrigerator, no doubt drinking out of the milk carton again. After a second, she poked her head back around the corner. “I’m on tonight at Rascals. You should come in. See if we can’t fix that dry spell you’re going through. Shouldn’t take me too long to get a hunk of a man like you hooked up.”
I scowled at her.
“What?” She tried to look all innocent and failed utterly. “You know, you’re getting older. Almost twenty-five. After that, things start to droop and sag. Get it while you can, sweetie.”
“I’m not even twenty-four yet! Quit trying to make me as old as you.”
Sonia gasped in mock horror, and she walked back to the couch. “I’m gonna go get ready for my shift. You should go take a nap or something. I’m worried about you.” She twirled some of my blond hair in her fingers. “You’ll come by tonight?”
“Good.” She headed down the bright hallway to her bathroom and then turned back around. “And, Brett? Don’t go back into the ocean for a while, unless someone’s drowning, okay?”