Undertow by Donald Bagley

July 20, 2014

Darci stood barefoot, ankle deep in Pacific surf. As each wave rolled back, she felt grainy sand being sucked away from under her feet. Signs along the beach warned of rip currents. She imagined swimming freestyle out to the breakers. In the churn and green froth of the undertow, her body would writhe in vain and fail to breach the surface. Bright bubbles of air would boil up from her mouth and wobble away as she sank into the cold green depths. Her blond hair would sway in the currents, and her flesh would glow like submerged porcelain.

Back home the hot Central Valley air puckered like sour citrus. The cloudless sky was garnished with a slice of sun. Two black-suited policemen had come for Daddy. They had chains and cuffs that sparked in the sunlight. Daddy was bullied into a sweaty wrestling match. Darci had jumped on a policeman, slapping at his shoulders to let Daddy go, but she’d been tossed off to somersault into a paneled wall. She was seventeen and already tired of losing. Daddy was dragged out of the trailer in a flurry of hands and shoes. His screams trailed off and were punctuated by a car door slam. He has warrants, they told her. Calm down, or you’re going in too.

A year ago Mom was folded into an air-conditioned hospital room. At first she joked about her morphine drip. What helps you live helps you die. The doctor said her multiple organ failure was due to long term opiate use. Mom’s head shrank daily on the starched pillowcases. Darci tried to fluff up her bedding for support and comfort, but the woman was being consumed by the linens. She would dry out and shrivel up like a salted snail, desiccated tissue in a dead shell. Every surface in the room was cold to the touch. Then the room was empty.

Joey’s black and white spotted fur swelled and subsided with his shattered rib cage. He wheezed and lost a breath for every breath he took. He held his head up for one brave moment, panting over his pink tongue. You couldn’t let the Cocker Spaniel out of the house, though he would try to escape. He had poured out the front door when fifteen-year-old Darci opened it and run into the street. She chased him out and saw him tossed around the front fender of a speeding car like a towel in a dryer. She wept over his broken body at curbside.

She’s driven Daddy’s F-150 the hundred miles to the coast. She faces the sun as it dips into the ocean’s horizon, a fiery pill dissolving in cold waters. The empty sky pales and the sea turns slate grey. Secret currents tow under the surface, pulling away from the beachfront. A stiff onshore breeze whips her hair around. Daylight fails by degrees.

Don Bagley is a graduate of American River College, where he studied art and literature. He lives in north California with his wife and son. His short stories have been featured at 365 Tomorrows, MicroHorror and Salamander Society.