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Gabriella Polin

Grade: 12

Mayfield High School

Instructor: Kari Beery

Salt

Short Story

Salt

Eyes closed, all I can feel is salt. It rolls over my skin, down my cheeks, into the corner of my mouth.

Ocean water.

I blink open my eyes, squinting at the brightness. White sunlight chases the ripples in the distance, interrupted only by quiet gulls circling in the clear blue sky. The tide sucks into the deep, then rushes forward in a medley of shells and foam, over and over like a waltz on repeat. It's amazing how you can live your whole life next to the perfect beach and never truly see it for what it is.

A carefree giggle sways in the air beside me, followed by a gentle squeeze to my right hand. The companion flutters into my peripheral, blocking the sea in part with her sunny brace-laden smile.

"You hit the nail on the head with this one," she sings, lifting her woven picnic basket way up high, arms open to the horizon. "I haven't seen weather this nice since last summer!" In this moment, she's a swarm of bubbles, a summer market's best sliced watermelon. Five and a half feet of pure blonde bliss, a fresh-bloomed rose with no thorns. Her lilting laugh is everything at once, eternity in a small sound, and as she glances back at me in a flash of sparkling amber, I find myself clutching my rolled-up towel closer to my chest.

"I… you told me you wanted to have a beach picnic." The words feel strange yet familiar on my tongue, like I'm repeating something that hasn't been said in a long time. Her head is tilted a little as she watches me with a patient smile. "So I… so I thought, what better day to do that than today?"

"Well, you did a fan-tastic job." She tips her head back to stare into the empty blue sky. We hover there for a moment, me looking to her, her looking to the heavens. Then she rolls her head to her shoulder, peering down to look at me out of the corner of her eye. Her voice, confident yet gentle: "Are you ready?"

Before I can finish a single nod, she gives me a little tug, and we fly, a stumbling four-legged ballerina holding towels and a basket of sandwiches. I'm trailing behind her, grinning like a child on Christmas, immersed in a cloud of her timeless Summer Rose perfume. We run and run for what feels like miles, faster than the gulls soaring above us. Then, like the fast pull-back of a calm tide, she digs her heels into the sand without warning, leaving me to fall into her side, out of breath and giggling. I lift my head to survey the glittering water, speckled with refracted sunlight and distant wings.

"This spot is nice," I gasp, taking in the scene for a few more seconds before turning my attention to the empty ground and single-handedly unrolling my towel. She watches me for a moment before releasing my hand to do the same, almost dropping the basket in the process. She turns her head until her gaze is one with mine, pupils dilated despite the harsh light.

"I poured my whole heart into this lunch," she pledges, mouth drawn into a false seriousness betrayed by the blissful sparkle in her eyes. "If you don't like it, I will never recover." I pat the towel free of sand before sinking onto it.

"Let's see your work," I muse, but before I'm halfway through the sentence she's already elbow-deep in the basket, fishing around like a middle-aged mom searching for her car keys in a tote bag. With a quick gasp and a victorious smile, out come two plastic sandwich bags, each containing a triangle of wheat bread packed with turkey and lettuce. She drops to her knees at my side, tossing one of the bags into my lap. My gaze flicks from my unopened sandwich back to the one in her hands as she opens the bag with a quiet pop. Sensing my eyes on her, she glances up at me, face still frozen in concentration. We stare at each other, silent and unsmiling, until her mouth twitches into her signature grin and mine follows suit, a delayed mirror.

"Eat up." So we do.

The crimson sun teases the horizon, painting the sky violet as we chew. I take another bite from the sandwich, cold and refreshing. As I roll the flavor over in my mouth, I can feel her studying my profile.

"You look like you want to say something," I comment, focused on my food. She's silent until I meet her eyes, warm and unreadable. We're both still for a moment before she looks to the ocean, taking a small breath.

"Sorry. I was just thinking." Then she's quiet again, lost in the distance with an almost melancholy smile. The salty wind buffets her summery curls, and she breaks a small laugh. "It's just been a while."

A gull lands a few feet away, poking around in the sand for something to eat. She sees this, and draws a container of homemade cookies from the picnic basket.

"Oh." I'm fixated on her slender hand as it wrenches the lid off the container and snaps off a tiny piece of oatmeal raisin. "I guess it has been a while."

The crumb soars through the air, landing almost perfectly at the bird's feet. In reverent silence, we watch the animal inhale the cookie and hop a little closer to our towel. She leans over me, reaching out her hand to give him another piece, her cropped t-shirt pulling higher on her stomach.

The slight touch feels like a knife on my flesh, and with an involuntary gasp, I flinch away from her, skin prickling where she came in contact. She's cold - no, she's freezing. The bird takes flight at the movement, and she cranes her neck to look up at me.

"Ari, you're frigid." She fixes me with a blank stare. "Your skin-" I grab her wrist, so skinny that I could break it, and squeeze until I can't anymore. "Jesus, you're ice cold."

Without making a sound, she places her other hand on top of mine, prying up my fingers one at a time so we can see the bloodless skin underneath my hold. I allow my hand to flop from her arm, and in doing so she takes the opportunity to take it into her own grip. My whole body is limp as she pulls my palm to her cheek, leaning her icy face into my skin, her signature carefree grin drawing wider across her face.

"Or maybe," she counters, "you're just warm." I search her eyes for some sort of recognition that something isn't right, but I find no such thing in her placid gaze. She lowers our joined hands from her face and begins to rise to her feet, dragging me from the ground with her. "Let's go for a swim. Maybe it'll cool you down."

My legs are no longer my own as she leads me to the water, hair fluttering into my face. Past her silhouette, the horizon is dark.

The turkey tastes thick and metallic in the back of my throat.

The water is hot around my toes, yet Ari wades in, beckoning for me to follow with a childish giggle. Ocean lapping at my calves, scalding every inch of skin it touches, I have no power to refuse her wordless directions.

"Ariadna," I yell. It comes out as a whisper.

Her hand is plaster white around mine. She marches onward.

"Ariadna!"

She stops.

"This isn't real, is it?" My throat burns, but the words are hardly audible. Her hair whips behind her, wet and heavy, woven with long-dead seaweed. Her fingers are gray, translucent; nail beds bare and black. The hands of a closed-casket funeral.

She turns to me, but I can't look her in the face - her labored, watery breathing is telling enough. The hungry waves suck at my skin. The gulls scream from the sky, circling above. Everything feels like it's on fire.

She tries to speak, but when she opens her jaw, all that comes out is an inhuman gurgling. Her grip on me tightens, and I fight the urge to cry out. The tears are streaming down my face, fast and sticky. Salty. She reaches towards me, towards my face, and I'm forced to meet her eyes as her cold hand touches my cheek.

Her swollen, waterlogged features are twisted into a deep frown. I'm gripped by a new, stronger terror, paralyzed as she traces her dead fingers from the bridge of my nose to my ear. This isn't right. This can't be right. She was just here.

Two months ago, reading side by side in the back of a classroom. Our literary presentation is due tomorrow morning, yet neither of us has started. The early spring air blusters in through the half-open window, providing subliminal ambiance for our unsuccessful analysis endeavors. With a decisive huff, she slams her book closed and sits up in her chair.

"When the weather gets warm, I want to have a picnic," she says, completely unprompted and full of certainty. "At, like, the beach. A… a beach picnic." I can't help but smile.

"Okay, Ari. It's a date." For a moment I'm surprised by my own words, and before she can say anything, I add, "Sorry, sorry, not a date. I don't know where that…" But when I look up at her, she's giggling, radiating her usual sunshine. I turn back to my book, breathless and a little shaky, but she doesn't seem to notice.

"Oh, relax," she laughs, leaning back in her chair. "It can be a date." I hum an affirmation to her and drop my chin into my hand while I follow her movements out of the corner of my eye. She fishes in her pocket and pulls out her phone, scanning the screen for a moment. She sighs, smile faltering a bit as she reads her texts.

"Maybe Jeremy will have to come, too," she mentions, cool and casual. "He did just invite me there tonight, after all."

"Tonight? It's, like, fifty degrees."I lift my head from my hand, turning to face her. "You can't even get in the water." She's lost in her phone, typing something for a few seconds before she sends it and looks back to me. She forces a little smile again.

"Oh, Jenny," she murmurs, leaning in to take my hand between her perfectly manicured fingers. My book flutters shut with a gentle breeze, but I can't think anymore as she leans in, strawberry breath hot on my nose, and whispers, "It's never too cold for a little swim."

The tears resume their descent, and she continues to wipe them away, uttering incoherent noises of concern. She softens her hold on my arm, and it drops to my side. Her eyes are the only part of her that remain alive, alight with sadness. Before I can think, I've taken a step closer to her.

Mom is hovering at my bedroom door, gripping her own hands until her knuckles are white. She doesn't need to say anything. I already saw the news.

I'm quiet, shaky, transfixed on my phone. A wall of blue texts, nothing in return. Jeremy is crying on the TV downstairs. His broken sobs are so distorted they almost sound like her laugh.

"I can't believe this. I… she can't…" I trail off and release a flat laugh, fixing mom with a vacant, bloodshot stare. "It's not fair. We have a project due tomorrow, and stupid Ari won't even answer my texts."

She doesn't struggle against my embrace, but melts into it. Her frozen body fights to reciprocate the hug with stiff joints as the waves threaten to knock us over. I bury my face in the crook of her neck, slimy and devoid of warmth, but still her.

The gulls are crying in unified, rapid succession, sharp and loud like an alarm. I breathe in her scent one last time, through my mouth and nose and eyes and face, absorbing every last bit of her I can get as she compresses in my grip, soft and heavy.

Eyes flutter shut. All that remains on my skin is salt.