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While Elsie was swimming and tanning, he was playing at the arcade by the waterfront and trying to win a prize for her. The arcade was full of delightful creatures that teased him with their insolence. The alligators kept sticking their red slimy tongues out at him. But in fact, they weren't wasn't slimy at all. It was just solid red plastic. His sweaty hand gripping the mallet twitched as he whacked the green meanie. Like a row of ants burrowing their way out of the soil, the prize tickets snaked their way out of the arcade machine. It was just enough to exchange for a sweet yellow birdie at the counter with button eyes and a stubborn hook of a beak. Stuffed into the narrow cage of his pocket, it bobbed up and down and rubbed uncomfortably against his thighs.

Beyond the boardwalk, Elsie was bobbing up and down in the water. Jerked upwards by the surging rush of a wave that aimed its frothy flashes at the sky, she was flushed into a whirlpool seconds later. He set down a beach towel on the wet sand and stretched himself out upon it. Seeing him, she emerged out of the water, her wan bluish skin seeming to deflect the rays of the sun. He reached for the yellow birdie in his pocket and juggled it like a ball.

"This may just be for you," his lips slightly widened into a semblance of a smile.

"All that money at the arcade just for this pathetic little thing. You must be kidding me," Elsie sneered and beat the bird down mid-air as it was still being juggled.

The bird landed on the towel beak-down with a whoosh. Elsie sat down right on top of it.

"Get up, you'll crush it," he whimpered.

He watched the opaque blue of her eyes blend into the far reaches of the ocean. He didn't want to look into them for the fear of seeing his reflection - stooped shoulders, rigid lips breathing in salt and flying particles of sand."You fool, it's a pile of rags not a real bird," she retorted in a voice loud enough so that a boy digging in the sand nearby overheard her.

Turning to face her, the little one asked: "Hey, do you have a bird over there?" The blond curls sticking out of his tiny blue hat made her think of some kid's picture on a cereal box.

"Just go give him the bird ok?" Elsie said to Michael.

"Sure, he's no brat, he may just deserve it," Michael replied, shoving Elsie to the right, but she barely budged.

"Ewww, get your hands off me, you creep," Elsie yelled out.

"I just want to get the bird that you're sitting on," insisted Michael, raising his voice and tapping her shoulder.

"Well, tough luck," answered Elsie. "I'm keeping it. You are never supposed to retract a present. That's just not how it's done, buddy"

Michael leapt to his feet. The wet ground collapsed beneath him as he ran so that his footprints trailed him. The goo-like sand jelly sucked in his feet and yet he could still hear Elsie's voice broadcasting "Wait for me, I am coming to swim with you." As he was gurgling underwater, her voice seemed to bounce off the bubbles he blew with his pursed lips. The salt water coursing through his ears absorbed her words and imbued them with an achy bitterness. They resonated within him like the dull muffled vibration of air in a seashell.

***

While swimming, he recalled his time at the hospital. Elsie, in his mind, was wearing these white gloves, with pieces of loose latex drooping off the ends of her fingers. When she spread ointment on his back, it wasn't her hands that were touching his burned skin that felt like it was being ripped off, but the rubbery latex with its scratchy friction. He heaved like an unruly colt trying to throw its master off the saddle. She told him to stop moving as she pulled on his ear. There was something very methodic about her "care." Ever since he was pulled out of the fire, she showed up exactly at the same time every day, 3 p.m., dressed in all white from skirt to blouse and cap. He once joked with her, "You aren't on the hospital staff, you don't have dress in white you know." But it's not like it mattered what he said to her anyway. She would just sit in her chair and watch him intently. He tried to catch her blinking, but her eyes seemed always open, her blue pupils piercing and bright. She never dozed off and closed her eyelids even for a moment. The one time her silent routine got disrupted freaked him out quite a bit. She walked over to the foot end of his bed and slapped his ankle.

"What?" He asked her.

"It's just an ant that was on your sock," Elsie replied quickly and went back to her seat.

He was always aware of her: even when he sat up to drink his juice, he knew she thought about his slurping. He had to get to her to talk. Reaching over to his fruit cup, he launched a plastic spoon in her direction. It landed right in her lap and the squished moist peach leaked on her white dress. "You are gross," she raised her voice.

***



As he emerged from the water, he kept hearing that “You are gross” from many years ago. They were set to head over to the boardwalk so that Elsie could hit the shops and browse for trinkets. Michael waited for her near the entrance of a small boutique decorated with seashells. He watched her figure turn into a shadow swallowed by darkness as she quickly strolled to the far back of this tiny space cluttered by shelves and stands. His elbows propped up against the door, he noticed how the red neon glow of the lamp vibrated on her black curls. He tiptoed gingerly toward her, slowly as if trudging through water, the soles of his feet nary making a sound. Stopping within a few inches of her gaunt figure, he admired the straightness of her back. She was trying out a blue bead necklace in front of the mirror; stretching it out in her hands, she glided the beads across the string from one end to another. Standing right behind her, he peered over her shoulder. The swiftness of her fingers outstripped his patience. The beads quickly flew out of his line of sight like a bunch of sparrows who scurried up into the air one after another. "This necklace just doesn't suit you," he whispered, breathing on her neck and lightly grazing it with his index finger.

Elsie turned around and squeezed his shoulders tightly with the curled palms of her hands; her narrowing blue eyes caught the red of the lamp and glinted ferociously.

"I told you to stand still and wait for me. You scared me,"she said

But she wasn't surprised in the least; she knew he was standing right behind her for several minutes. She was even tempted to pick up one of those trinkets from a shelf to her left, a tiny plastic red lobster, and throw it at him. Its antennae reminded her of a wall plant and its affectionate tendrils. Instead, she took off her necklace and carefully hung it around his neck. Lifting it with his right hand, he spun it on his index finger and the beads seemed to be flying this way and that, as if they were not attached to anything but freely floating through the air like azure fireflies exploding in the night and catching the sleepy eye unaware with their tiny points of scintillation.

She teared up and sniffled slightly. "You're always so .... ugh." Michael walked away from her towards the wall and gazed through a narrow window; a wave crashed against a breaker and the foam that flew upwards eventually settled on the rocks, turning their color from gray to dark brown. He wished he were sitting there in his swimming trunks, watching the maelstrom's spiraling lines as the water was sucked in towards the depths. Turning her head in his direction, Elsie squinted her eyes and breathed in deeply; she had the sensation of a vigorous cool breeze rushing into her and expanding her chest, the kind that made leaves rustle and dance on a mellow autumn afternoon. In a lilting voice, slightly raspy and rapturous, she uttered: "You'd like to go on the rocks, wouldn't you? The high tide is coming in." Elsie was indeed relieved that he would. Of course, it irritated her endlessly that he tuned her out while he was there. But that certain calm, those soothed nerves of his satisfied her. If not for her sake, then for his.

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