The sand beneath Holly's feet was too hot, scalding her as she walked across the beach. She felt her blond hair tangling in the humid wind but did not move to fix it on her head. She was sweating under the billowing folds of her large sweatshirt, which masked her small body from the eyes of the other beachgoers. Her steps were long and careful as a heron's, composed so as to maintain a distance between her legs and the reddened sunbathers, roasting their bodies on beds of colorful, stained towels. Behind her, she heard the shrill prattling of her family as they meandered to the empty patch of sand where they would lay their towel. Holly sat down on the bare sand, leaning against a splintered wooden fence that marked the rise of the sand dunes at the end of the beach. She removed her sweatshirt and placed it over her bare legs, folding her arms so as to cover the paleness of her stomach, which was not covered by her gray bathing suit. She watched her family as they spread their towel out and sat down, producing romance novels, CD players, and sandwiches from their bags. Her mother rubbed sunscreen over her brother's shoulders, leaving glistening white streaks. Holly stretched her legs out in front of her and began to push sand towards them, burying herself until the weight of the sand was so much that she felt as though she could be immobile if she were to add more.
Holly lowered her head and looked at where she knew her toes must be. She wiggled them, cracking and breaking the surface of the sand like shattered glass. A foot fell hard on where her knee was. She felt the weight pushing on her bone, using her body as ground to run on.
Letting out a pained animal wail, Holly darted her legs out from under the sand and stood up, glaring at the boy who had stepped on her. He stood a few feet away from her with a Frisbee in his hand.
"Sorry," he said with a shrug. His eyes were blue and his hair eclipsed his eyes if the wind blew it the right way. He wore shorts with flowers on them.
"You stepped on my shin," Holly said through her teeth, backing away slightly.
"Sorry," he repeated.
"It hurts." He shrugged again, starting to move back towards his friends.
"Sorry about that, then," he said, clapping a hand against her shoulder as he passed. Holly jerked her body away and roughly shoved him forward, glaring at him as he stumbled on the sand. Straightening himself, he shot her a hateful glare.
"Bitch," he growled, and jogged back to his friends.
Holly sat back down and folded her legs in front of her and drew circles in the sand with a slim finger. She could, for a while, ignore the squalling of the others inhabiting the beach, but was pulled back into recognition of their horrible sounds upon the loud cry of her own brother.
"Mom!" her brother, Alex, shrieked, smacking his small hand against his mother's thigh to gain her attention. "I have to go to the bathroom!"
"We passed a bathroom on the way here," groaned Holly's father, dropping his bag and towel onto the sand. "Why didn't you go then?"
"I didn't have to!"
"Holly, take your brother to the bathroom that we passed back over there," her mother said wearily, looking across the shore at the small wooden shack that housed the bathrooms. The creases around her faded grey eyes were made larger from the shadows of the sun that hung overhead. Holly wordlessly rose from the seat she had taken in front of the dunes and began to walk towards the shack, resuming her cautious stride as she once again navigated the sea of bodies around her, less graceful than before from the limp imposed by the running boy. Her brother leapt forward when he saw her begin to move, and he followed, stomping and kicking sand up from under his feet, struggling to keep up.
As soon as they had walked out of their parents' earshot, Alex jogged forward towards Holly so he could speak without people overhearing. "Hey, Holly," he said, his voice a gleeful, hissing whisper. He tugged at his swim trunks to keep them from falling down. Holly kept walking, trying to ignore her brother, the stabbing feeling in her bones each time her foot hit the sand, and the smell of sunscreen and saltwater that hit her face with renewed vigor each time the hard, brackish wind blew. "Holl," he called again. She turned around only out of disdain for him and for the nickname. She knew not to glare at him, because he would only laugh at how strangely her harshly narrowed eyes interacted with her smooth, round, girlish face.
"What," she said flatly. This was not a question, and he knew this. She was angry as she always was with him, and she had only spoken to alert him of this by the tone of her voice. This only encouraged him to continue to goad her, as it always did.
"That guy back there, the one you hit," he snickered, his eyes crinkled over a streak of sunburned red flesh as he laughed. "I heard him, and he said that you're a…" he giggled deviously and ran up to Holly until he was in step beside her. "He said that you're a bitch." He erupted into a fit of laughter, stopping in their path to double over, his hands cupped over his mouth as he cackled gleefully. Holly kept walking, constantly more aware of the sand and the smell of sunscreen and the animal shriek of her brother's laugh.
"Shut the hell up," Holly said, snapping her head back to look at him. He bit his lip, which was curled into a grin. This did not stop his snorts of laughter, rather, intensified them. His mouth flew open, his teeth unable to hold back his glee, and he resumed laughing, harder now.
"Bitchy McBitchface, that's who you are!" he squealed, running to catch up with her again. She stopped abruptly, having reached the bathrooms.
"Go to the damn bathroom," Holly said, shoving him by his small, tan shoulder to the steps in front of the wooden hut. He still snickered joyfully as he ran past the sticky concrete threshold of the bathroom.
Holly sat down on the steps and looked out at the sea, noticing the way the gentle rolling of the waves close to the beach intensified into crashing towers of water as they got farther away, culminating in great plumes of ocean spray licking up the sides of rocks. She could see gulls weaving through the rolling tide, screeching as they plunged their white heads below the dark water and emerging triumphantly with flailing, gleaming fish clamped in between their beaks. Behind her, the bathrooms stood rickety and small. Holly was struck by the rotting, pungent scent of human waste and garbage.
She rose from her seat, brushing sand off of her legs and hands from where she had touched the steps. The stench of the bathrooms pushed her away, and her feet moved her towards the edge of the ocean where bloated, sunburned children and their parents constructed lumpy sandcastles and ran, shocked, upon the sudden emergence of a sand flea. She could feel the sand becoming damper and colder under her feet as she neared the gurgling edge of the tide, her feet sinking less and less as the world became firmer beneath her. She paused when she felt the chill of ocean water lap over her toes, gently tugging her feet closer to the water, farther into the sand. Realizing her proximity to the playing families around her, she wrapped her arms around her bare torso and lowered her head, careful not to look at any more than the feet of those who passed her.
Holly glanced back at the bathrooms, checking to see if her brother had yet emerged, but nobody stood outside. She smiled slightly and walked further into the water, stiffening each time the small waves of the tide lapped farther up her legs, like cold, briny fingers grappling at her flesh. She stood for a moment in a place where water splashed up around her waist, small droplets sticking to her bare stomach and arms, and looked out at the vast sea before her. She could feel the soft, slick floor of seaweed shift beneath her feet, repulsive in a way that made her curl her toes and lift her feet so that she was treading water, her arms paddling around her as though she was trying to swim rather than to stay afloat.
Thinking of the nasal whine of her brother's voice, the sagging, stretched flesh on her mother's arms, and the scabs on her father's face from his careless shaving, Holly stretched her legs out behind her and began to swim. Her body pushed her through the water with the fluidity and speed of a fish that had been touched by a predator, the feeling of dread forcing her muscles to move more than her own will . Water splashed up around her, throwing itself into her nose, eyes, and mouth, blinding her to her surroundings, but she continued to swim, spitting out the horrible briny water that was flecked her lips and tongue in fruitless attempt to rid herself of the flavor.
Holly had swum for ten minutes when she became aware of the burning ache of the muscles in her arm. She slowed her pace and brought her elbows into her sides, slowly paddling further out to sea rather than continuing her massive, sweeping strokes that had carried her so far. The sun had dried her hair in knots and kinks, so salted by the water surrounding her that it stuck to her face with a tacky sort of dryness. Looking back, she could still see a sliver of the beach lining the horizon, a streak of gold flecked with the garish colors of umbrellas, towels, and bathing suits. She wondered if they could see her, as far out as she was, as a blonde, bobbing speck that gleamed in the sun like a beacon. She thought of her parents, wrapped in towels, burned, and covered in sand, getting on a boat with the lifeguard to retrieve her. Stretching her arms out around her once more, twisting them on her shoulders to ease the ache, Holly dove into the water and swam faster than she had before.
Holly paddled furiously, hoping she might be able to enjoy a few hours of solitude far off shore, where she could not be seen. The beach was shrinking fast into the horizon, and she estimated she could not be more than an hour's swim from total invisibility to those on shore. Brushing her tangled hair from her eyes, Holly began to swim again, checking over her shoulder every few minutes to see how far she was from shore. It was not until after one hour of this that she began to feel the pain.
With each stroke, she became more aware of the burning pain shooting through all the muscles of her body and the stiffening resistance of her joints as her body tried to force her into rest. She became aware of hunger. For a moment, she considered stopping, allowing herself to float for a while, letting the sea take her where it may.
The sun had fallen from its position overhead into evening hues of pink and orange, streaked with wispy clouds. Holly felt as though she had been swimming for days by the searing pain, the bloated dryness of her parched tongue, and the pressure of hunger in her stomach. The shore was no more than a thread of amber on the horizon line now, but Holly was afraid of being seen by the brightness of her hair in the evening light, and kept swimming. By the time the beach had disappeared from view, Holly's limbs struggled to breach the surface of the water.
By nightfall Holly had begun to sink from exhaustion. She had allowed herself to be consumed by the water up to her chin, moving forward slowly with exhausted strokes and closed eyes. She was aware that she must be thirsty, hungry, that her limbs must be burning, but she could not feel these things any more. Her being was closing down to rest, adding weight to her arms and legs and eyelids, slowing her heart and breathing down to a steady, slumbering pace. Holly was not aware that she had stopped moving. Fading into unconsciousness, she felt only the dull burn of seawater filling her nose and mouth as her body was pulled below the surface, strangled by water, and committed to the sea.