DRAGGING THE SEA BEHIND HIM
There is a whale in the Royale parking lot. Shoppers cluster around it like a flock descending onto a wire: keeping a respectful distance, squawking. There are actual birds too, arranged in a loose cyclone that pulses and shifts above. It is not overwhelmingly big, the whale; the length of a sensible two-door sedan and half as wide, including the tail. It is partially wrapped in a blue tarp, which is beaded with oily-looking dew, and it is dead.
Lizzie almost walks right into the whale. She’d seen Marco’s Civic as she pulled in but parked several spaces away, near the back corner of the parking lot, not wanting to seem desperate. She’s tying her apron straps behind her back when the text from JP comes.
Mom okay. Me okay. Flossy skunked again.
Lizzie is obscurely comforted by an incoming task she can solve. The skunk under her mother’s house is a persistent nuisance but it is known. Mom okay, on the other hand, could mean that Eva is okay. Or it could mean almost anything else. Lizzie has trained herself not to dwell on this sort of thing while she’s at work. She keeps her head down, and she’s texting JP that she’ll come up there on her lunch break when she finds that she has walked into a muttering crowd.
The edge of the tarp scrapes up against the hem of her khakis, and at first Lizzie thinks it is just a tarp—perhaps used for some abandoned beach project, then dragged afield. But suddenly, crowding her field of view, there is the curved tail and the rough skin like wet suede and the long body, both robust and oddly slender. And the animal’s eye, a clouded brown, half open against a teardrop pool of white that stretches up and back toward its body like a racing stripe. Lizzie cannot make sense of this at first. She’s seeing a god in a shopping mall, a diamond kicked heedlessly into the dirt. She shouts and stumbles back.
“Get away from it, Lizzie,” someone says sharply, and then Lizzie’s elbow is clamped in a forceful grip. The birds stir overhead and the crowd regards her, frowning. Becca pinches at her elbow and steers her toward the Royale.
“C’mon, boss,” Becca says, leaning into her. “Marco’s inside calling the cops.”
“The cops?” Lizzie repeats dumbly, looking back at the little crowd that closes ranks around the whale as she and Becca walk into the market. All she can see now are flashes of the blue tarp between the legs of the onlookers, as if the tarp itself is a flailing animal they have brought down and subdued.
“We didn’t know who else to call,” Becca shrugs.
* * *
Two officers are dispatched to assess the whale. The town is barely big enough to have its own police department, but they get extra help in the summers, when there are all manner of tourist citations to hand out. Becca stands outside with the looky-loos, smoking a cigarette, to everyone’s general chagrin. A tourist with a blond bob and a crocheted jumpsuit glares at Becca and flaps her hands, waving the smoke away fervently. The two deputies retrieve a spool of yellow tape from the trunk of their beach cruiser and rope it carefully across the eight traffic cones they have placed around the whale.
No one knows when or how the whale arrived, but there is evidence on the beach a quarter mile away: a long gutter in the sand, something heavy dragged up and over the dunes. There is a concentrated marine odor, tinged with mildew, and a proliferation of flies. The tourists say they couldn’t stand to picnic nearby because of that smell.
Lizzie has seen terrible things wash up on the beach her whole life. Whatever unknowable violence takes place in the ocean sometimes spills ashore, and it is of a piece with the place, grotesque and normal. The top half of a dolphin, mulchy and gray, missing its eyes and long snout. Drowned rats and cats that, by foolishness or misadventure, found their way to the shore. A dead sevengill with a strangely deflated body, its pale belly slit and emptied. Jellyfish stranded in gelatinous colonies on the sand. Jill Nygren, a surfer only a few years older than Lizzie, badly bitten on the shin by a young thresher shark, then hauled up onto the beach in a shrieking fog of blood. Jill lost the leg from the knee down.
The day of Jill’s maiming, Lizzie had seen the commotion from her position twenty yards north, wading into the murky, lapping tideline with JP. When the screaming started and Lizzie saw the blood in the sand, she’d taken hold of JP’s hand and turned his worried little face up to hers—look at me, only at me—and walked him up the hill, home to her mother’s. Lizzie felt useful that day and, to her shame, covetous; even as she soothed him, Lizzie was already wanting the feeling of it again. I knew exactly what to do, she’d thought, just like I would if he was mine.
JP had been six then, and Eva had only been gone a few months, that time. A couple months after that, Lizzie took JP to see Jill, and Jill showed them a spot on her ruined knee where the scar tissue looked like a smiling human face.
The officers don’t know what to do with the whale, so they let him lie.
* * *
There is a problem in the stand of cantaloupes, some creeping, jaundiced rot that has spread in the underlayer. Marco comes over to help Lizzie pick the blighted ones out of the display. They roll a big, gray trash can out of the back and station it next to the bin.
“Who the fuck would do something like this?” he asks her, jerking his head toward the parking lot and the automatic doors, where two tourist girls are stumbling in, tittering. The deputies have draped a second tarp—brown this time—over the whale and weighted it down with cones, but Lizzie can still see the blue tarp flaring up at the edges and the whale’s tail poking out, like a tongue.
“Sunscreen, prosecco, salt and vinegar chips. Mini carrots,” Lizzie says, nodding at the girls. “And who the fuck knows?”
“The little one’s getting a titsy keychain too. Definitely not going to eat the carrots.”
Marco smiles as the girls inspect the sunscreen display at the end of aisle four. He puts one of the melons on his shoulder and lets it roll down to his elbow, quirking his arm up to bounce it into the waiting trash can. The cantaloupe splits as it lands on the others, and the air around them fills with its sweet, vaguely genital smell.
“Be gentle,” Lizzie scolds him, laughing.
“Yes, ma’am.” Marco sketches a little salute and sets the next melon in the can with exaggerated care.
Marco asked her to go for tacos at the eastside fish place last winter. She’d declined immediately, even though just the night before, Lizzie had been unable to sleep until she made herself come, extravagantly, picturing his dopey smile, his long fingers, his well-shaped ears. Even so, there hadn’t seemed any point to going out with Marco; JP’s care and providing the companionship that Eva and Lizzie’s mother, Rachel, needed—but would not ask for—required everything of Lizzie. All else was crowded out.
Lizzie and Marco work in silence for a few more minutes, eyes down, until Becca calls for one of them to open the second register. Lizzie’s phone vibrates in the pocket of her apron.
JP: im bored when are you coming?
Lizzie texts back: lunch break hang tight
The tourist girls check out in Lizzie’s lane: a soft, pink keychain in the shape of a bikini top, three peaches, a bottle of champagne, locally made chicharrons, and a bag of mini-carrots.
* * *
Lizzie hears Flossy barking a block away; her braying hound’s call—roop! roop! roop!—is half-wail, as always. Before she left for Tampa with a suitcase full of flowered kaftans, Rachel instructed Lizzie to come over at least once a day to check on the dog. Both of them understood what Rachel meant. Flossy was loud—always shuffling and sighing and provoked to baying by a strong wind—but kept her own counsel. Eva was usually quiet but did not.
Their mother’s house has always been intrusively close to the Royale: four blocks up the steep hill to the flatlands, then two blocks to the left. When Lizzie started working at the market in eleventh grade as a stock girl, Rachel would walk down the hill and take pictures of Lizzie in her work outfit, sometimes buying a cartful of items that she both needed and knew would embarrass her daughter. Stool softener, Tampax, once a yeast infection cream. Twelve years on, the novelty has long worn off. Rachel shops at the cheaper, inland Albertsons now, though she always brings JP to the Royale to say hi if Lizzie has to work a double shift.
JP is sitting on the front steps reading a careworn Calvin and Hobbes book, frowning. Reading is still challenging for him sometimes, especially now that Lizzie isn’t around every night to help him practice. The screen door squeaks behind him in the wind; it’s always sat a little loose in the doorframe, like an improperly tightened lid. Lizzie is almost on top of him before he realizes she’s there. He startles, then smiles up at her.
“Comrade,” JP says, tipping forward into her arms. He drops the book. Lizzie lifts the draping animal weight of him up, and he dangles there, his arms around her neck.
“Nephew comrade,” Lizzie says, forgetting to do the fully committed Russian accent he’s come to expect as she inhales the musty scent of JP’s hair. He needs a bath. Flossy’s barking—emanating from the mud porch in the back of the house—becomes joyous and frantic before it stretches into a howl.
“How’s your mom today?” Lizzie asks, setting JP back on his feet. He bends down to pick up the book and mumbles something she can’t quite make out.
“Outside voice, comrade.” Lizzie nudges him with her sneaker.
“She’s meditating,” JP says. “Or something.”
“Gran called this morning. They went snorkeling and saw a clown fish and a manta ray, but it didn’t make Sharon less sad.”
JP smooths a bent page of the book and closes it carefully.
Lizzie snorts, thinking of Rachel, aggressively action-oriented, pulling her friend Sharon—whose husband had recently died of a protracted but vigorous cancer that took a decade to finish its work—through the fine Florida sand. Clapping Sharon around the shoulder and telling her that dwelling on things just makes them worse: that inaction begets inaction, that grief begets grief. Shoving a rented snorkeling mask into Sharon’s hands.
They’d visited Sharon once when Lizzie and Eva were thirteen, right before everything started. Before Eva shook the first white pill onto her palm. As soon as they arrived, Lizzie found herself overwhelmed with appetite. She was all mouth. The sand and water were obscene, so inviting it made her stomach ache. The beach at home was a horror in comparison: strata of mud straining up from beneath the sand, granite cliffs deformed by the tides, the water freezing and brackish and lapping at your feet.
In Florida Lizzie wanted to eat oranges from tall, fragrant trees and wear a bikini for the first time. She wanted to swim and swim in the turquoise water, toward a horizon of undiminishing brightness. Maybe she’d finally be brave enough to learn to surf. Anything was possible. Maybe she would kiss a boy.
But Eva had wrecked the trip in her careless way: first eating fig after unripe fig from the branches of one of Sharon’s trees—even though Sharon warned Eva they would upset her stomach—then getting caught smoking a filched cigarette out the guest bedroom window. After the figs Eva shat rivers for days. She trembled and sweated while Lizzie anxiously watched The Real World on Sharon’s rec room TV and daubed Eva’s forehead with a damp dishtowel.
They’d been disallowed from visiting the beach by an incensed Rachel, who said she’d planned the trip so she and Sharon could go antiquing and drink iced wine, not so her twins could hooligan around and embarrass her in front of her oldest friend. Rachel saw the twins as one animal back then: complex but singular and bound to a shared fate. Neither was allowed to go to the beach alone, and with Eva sick, it mean neither went at all. It was for safety, Rachel said, but both twins understood why. Eva was being punished for doing what she did; Lizzie for allowing Eva to do what she did.
* * *
In the living room of their mother’s house, Eva’s body makes the shape of a capital A.
“That’s downward dog,” JP says sagely, bumping Lizzie’s hip.
All over are Eva’s little nests. There is a partially knit arm of a sweater draped over one side of the recliner, connected by a snarl of yarn to a cloth bag on the carpet at its feet. There is a set of hand weights in the corner by Rachel’s prized ficus. The coffee table teems with mugs, each containing a teabag in a variable stage of desiccation. There is, inexplicably, a tangle of cotton clothesline curled on the floral couch, tacked onto a slab of cardboard in an elaborate looping formation. Several bottles of nail polish (black, pale purple, jungly green) lie overturned near an open bottle of acetone on one of the side tables.
Eva’s bent nearly double and, for a moment, the only sound in the room is the steady whoosh of her breath. Her yoga mat is unfurled between the coffee table and the TV. Her phone is on the carpet next to her. In its moving screen Lizzie can see a man in black briefs in the same inverted V posture. Flossy’s yips and howls are even louder in the living room.
“How can you concentrate with this racket?” Lizzie asks, picking up the acetone and capping it.
“I heard about the whale,” Eva says, holding position. Her voice sounds slightly strangled and suppressed, her head still tucked in against her chest.
“Whale?” JP asks, looking up at Lizzie.
He’s been in a marine phase recently. Before Eva came home from the recovery center, Lizzie and Rachel would sit at the kitchen table after dinner and let JP show them videos on his phone—a great white shark as large as a school bus swimming dreamily by a cage of divers or a seal emerging headfirst from the water, its slapstick face cheery and oddly purposeful.
JP had only been allowed an hour of screen time each day, and he’d always saved enough of it to make sure the three of them watched his carefully curated video selections together. Now he texts Lizzie videos at all hours, enjoying the unrestricted phone access Eva allows. Lizzie texts back when she’s at work or home in her apartment on the other side of town, sitting in her own undecorated kitchen. She sends JP long strings of response emojis, excited and sometimes stern if he’s up too late.
“There’s a dead baby orca in the parking lot at my work,” Lizzie says, glaring down at her sister. JP would want to see the whale, Lizzie knew, but she wanted to spare him; he was prone to nightmares.
“A baby?” JP’s face falls. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know, comrade,” Lizzie says gently. “He probably washed up on shore and then someone—”
“He blew in on a fat storm cloud, dragging the sea behind him, woooooooooo…” Eva intones from the floor, as if she’s starting a ghost story. “He’s just the beginning; pretty soon it’s going to be raining sturgeon and hermit crabs!”
JP giggles and looks relieved. It pains Lizzie, the way Eva’s whimsy always soothes him, because she knows pretty soon JP will be back to dinners with Lizzie and Rachel. Eva will go back to rehab, or she’ll disappear for a few months, then turn up with that slow-motion tremor in her hands, pupils blown. When she comes back to Lizzie’s doorstep, she’ll look like something that has been living beneath the ground, all mussed fur and blinkered yellow eyes, like nothing that could ever have been a mother.
“Comrade, is there going to be a storm?” JP asks.
“Definitely,” Lizzie says. “A whale storm is coming.”
“Can we go see him?” JP looks hopefully at Lizzie as Eva rolls over on her back and starts a bicycling motion with her legs.
“Who told you about the whale?” Lizzie asks her sister.
“Becca texted,” Eva shrugs, sitting up.
“Can we…” JP is shifting back and forth on his feet now.
“Yes, comrade,” Lizzie says, looking at Eva, who stares back neutrally. “You planning to rig a ship?” Lizzie gestures to the coil of rope on the couch.
“I took a class called—don’t fucking laugh, Elizabeth—‘sacred knots,’ and I’m incorporating it into my daily practice—”
“Did Mom pay for it?”
Lizzie thinks of her mother’s sciatica painkillers and little orange bottles of muscle relaxants, locked up in the safe under her bed like jewels.
“Becca texted because she thought you probably wouldn’t mention the whale and you seemed kinda spooked,” Eva laughs. “I told her you’ve seen gnarlier stuff than that.”
“Okay, first of all, shut up,” Lizzie says. “Second of all, Mom better not have paid for another—”
“I really feel like you’re not taking my spiritual development seriously,” Eva says, rolling her eyes. “I’m sure Mom would be just touched by your concern, but I talked to the woman who runs the class, and she ended up letting me take it for free. Turns out she’s in recovery too. Oxy.”
Lizzie is unsurprised to hear this; Eva has always inspired investment of various kinds. People liked to give her free things, they liked to bask in her attention and her diffident attractiveness, liked to take her advice. Lizzie pictures her sister sitting in the overpriced class with a bunch of tourists she’ll handily befriend, just another luxury Eva feels no compunction about taking for her own.
“Nice you two have so much in common,” Lizzie says, more sourly than she intends.
“Honestly, it is, Lizzie. Can you imagine what that’s like? Knowing how to make friends?”
“Can we go see—” JP’s voice is growing increasingly reedy with need.
“Hush,” Eva says, grinning. “I’m trying to be mean to my sister.”
* * *
It takes forever to get them out of the house. First, Eva insists she cannot possibly go to the store without eating and takes her time assembling a bowl of undifferentiated vegetable matter from the Tupperware containers in the fridge. She eats it slowly but in huge forkfuls, chewing each bite to mush.
“You eat like a literal horse,” Lizzie says, annoyed. “You know, I have to be back in forty minutes.”
Eva tells Lizzie it’s depressing that Lizzie’s never seen a kale salad before, and anyway she, Eva, is trying to get Rachel and JP to eat more healthfully instead of feeding them nitrate-laden garbage from some minimart. Lizzie asks if Eva learned to make kale salads in rehab, and Eva says so what if she did.
They all check on Flossy, who pants gratefully when they crack the door and whose body has filled her enclosure with the inimitable skunk stench, sulfurous and profound. Lizzie and Eva debate whether they should get tomato juice or peroxide and baking soda to de‑skunk the dog. They decide on both; they’ll figure out whose solution was better next time Flossy’s fool enough to provoke the skunk.
Eva and JP go upstairs to change into all black because JP thinks it’s the only time they’re likely to attend a whale’s funeral. While they’re dressing, Lizzie looks into her mother’s room, checking for any signs of disturbance under the bed, but there are none.
Finally they walk down the hill to the Royale, Lizzie holding her rolled-up apron in her left hand. There’s no crowd around the whale when they arrive, just a tourist couple who have moved two of the police cones out of the way and are taking photographs with a blocky Samsung phone. The smell around the whale has intensified, and the blue and brown tarps inflate and deflate, lunglike, with the wind.
JP hangs back, holding one corner of Lizzie’s polo shirt.
“Is he gross under there?” he asks.
“No,” Lizzie and Eva say in unison.
“They’re mammals, you know,” JP says, inching closer to the whale. “They have warm blood.”
He kneels near the eye for a long time, his brows drawn together. Lizzie watches Eva watch her son.
Eva’s face in profile is a wonder. Most people expect a kind of cosmic sameness from twins. Strangers always assume Lizzie and Eva are fraternal because their aspects are so fundamentally disparate: they are both pretty—and Lizzie is thankful for this even as she feels it has not improved her life in any measurable way—but Eva is appealing. She looks like it might feel good to rescue her. To Lizzie’s mind, this makes the way Eva has wasted herself even more hubristic, like Eva doesn’t know that there are limits to what people will tolerate on her behalf.
Eva takes a long breath and blows it out through her nose, then stretches her arms up toward the sky. She has stick-and-poke tattoos on her fingers: stars and clovers and blotches that were intended to be cherries, a smudgy, curved blur that used to look like a J before the ink’s slow fragmentation under the skin. Eva flexes both hands. She sighs with satisfaction at the pop of her knuckles, observing JP’s grave expression as he inspects the whale.
“I’m going to take him up to Washington to ski this winter. Mom said she always wanted to rent a cabin near Snoqualmie. I was thinking of booking one for all of us around her birthday. Like, as a surprise,” Eva says quietly.
She faces forward, not looking at Lizzie, who hears the question in her twin’s voice nonetheless. A kind of circular call passes wordlessly between them. It begs a familiar coded response, one that says: This you is the real you and I see her. That says: We can raise your kid in shifts and I will love him for both of us when you can’t. That says: I believe that as a family we will go skiing this winter.
Lizzie has always been good at knowing what is required of her, but winter is still months away.
“Doesn’t that sound good?” Eva says, cracking her knuckles again. “Once I get the money together…”
“That’s a nice thought,” Lizzie says to her sister, who sags almost imperceptibly under the weight of it. The circle between them becomes a new sort of punctuation, a contorted but unbroken line flaring out in violent separation, then merging again, folding and refracting back on itself. JP paces a loop around the whale. They stand in silence for some time. Then they all go into the Royale to gather supplies for Flossy’s bath.
* * *
The wildlife warden comes with six men that night to take the whale away. They bring a backhoe and a floodlight too, but the backhoe turns out to be unnecessary. Instead the men roll the whale up in the blue tarp and stand elbow-to-elbow around its edges. They hoist it into the low bed of the warden’s truck. Marco helps at the right-hand corner, by the eye, which has finally slumped closed. The forked tail hangs from the tailgate. A few of the men groan with the effort as they situate the whale, but it only takes a few minutes to maneuver, all told. Once again there is a modest crowd assembled.
Lizzie and Becca stand apart from the group, smoking. Under the floodlight, illuminated in its glare, are four or five high school girls, slicked up with lip gloss and frosted eyeshadow, as still and ostentatious as a flower arrangement. There are seven or eight tourists, one of whom is sobbing into an embroidered handkerchief. They’ll be back on the beach tomorrow, feeling the dampness of the sand creep in through their towels, reading magazines and eating mealy apples. There are two boys—clearly brothers but not twins—in whose shattered faces Lizzie sees something unspeakable that fills her with pity.
As the warden drives haltingly away in the truck—burdened with the whale, now partially exposed in the billowing blue tarp—one of the tourists starts to clap. No one joins him and the sound peters out into the night air. There is strange weather in the whale’s wake, skewed barometric pressure that snaps in Lizzie’s ears, and a briny draft at her ankles.
It had parents, she thinks, stricken. Maybe even siblings but certainly a mother. The whale had seemed less mammalian than anything she could imagine, but there is something human in the grief Lizzie envisions for the animal’s mother. She sees it swimming somewhere offshore, bereft of all reason, sending its grief-call through the ocean at thunderous velocity. A lumbering black sac of warm blood, with its own broken heart as large and sonorous as a church bell.
* * *
Lizzie lets Becca leave early and closes up the Royale with Marco, shooing two tourists and a group of pilled-up townies out as soon as the clock strikes ten. They’re both off the next day, and as they lock up, she surprises herself by asking Marco if he wants to have a drink. Lizzie’s not thirsty, not really, but she thinks her sister would be pleased at her bravery. Lizzie will tell Eva tomorrow.
Tonight the aloneness of Lizzie’s singular body, her finite life, is both acutely felt and not unpleasant. JP is at home with his mother, who wants to take him skiing this winter. Anything could be possible. Lizzie thinks she may take up surfing. She sees herself past the whitecaps, beyond where any sensible person would swim, another defiant little masochist with a board-scraped belly, beaten back by wave after wave. She may take a vacation to somewhere tropical, all alone. She may take Marco home with her tonight and let him put his hands all over her, and his mouth. She may delight in him under her: a clanging, needful machine straining into higher and higher gear, the scent of the whale still lingering under his fingernails and on his palms. She may tell him everything about herself and let the words be carried into his body on her breath.
* * *
Lizzie’s phone vibrates continuously as she and Marco walk to his car.
JP: Moms been in bed since 7, i’m bored wyd??
JP: Gran home tomorrow, yay!
JP: is the whale still there?
It’s only been four months, Lizzie thinks, we should have a little more time. This once she wills herself not to rush over to her mother’s house to check the safe under the bed and tuck JP in, hours after Eva should have done so.
If Lizzie goes over there now, she may find Eva high and insensible on the couch, eyes glassed over, Flossy still reeking out back. Or she may find Flossy bathed and JP left to his own devices while Eva talks earnestly to her sponsor behind a closed door. Either way, if she goes to their mother’s house now, Lizzie knows it will be impossible to ignore the ugly, sneaky part of her that wants JP—so inescapably dear and specific and hers—back fiercely enough that she’d surrender Eva to her affliction to reclaim him. Lizzie texts JP.
Try to sleep, comrade.
Count sheep. Count whales.
We’ll go to the beach tomorrow.
“Should we clean up?” Marco says, wrinkling his nose. There’s only one cone left in the parking lot, and a scrap of yellow tape flutters from its base. They stand at a respectful distance from the cone, as if it still marks the borders of the whale calf’s body. In the distance a dense fog rolls over the dunes on the beach, moving inland.
“I don’t think I can touch that,” Lizzie says.
“I know, me too,” Marco grimaces. “But seems wrong to leave it.”
He leans into her until they’re shoulder to shoulder. They’re almost of a height, and it’s comfortable, like reading back-to-back with Eva in her mother’s window seat used to feel; a matched set.
It only takes Lizzie a minute to let herself back into the Royale and rummage through the storeroom in the back. The chartreuse hose extension has been there—gathering dust next to an old air compressor—since she was a stock girl, just excited to have her first job. Lizzie’s never had occasion to use it or seen anyone else use it, but she attaches it to the spigot on the side of the building on her first try.
The hose kicks powerfully in her hand when she presses her thumb to the trigger. The spray is forceful but diffuse, and Lizzie uses it to drive the cone back toward the dumpster at the west side of the parking lot. It tumbles forward at speed as Marco cheers her on, wolf-whistling and calling her name. She pins the cone to the side of the dumpster with the stream, then turns the pressure washer onto the spot where the whale once lay. Lizzie lets the water chase whatever’s left toward the sewer grate a few yards away, repatriating his meager earthly remains to the sea.
Born and raised in Seattle, AJ Strosahl is a writer who now lives and works in Oakland, California. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, MARY, Risk Press and other outlets. Her short story, ‘Dayton’, was long listed for the Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction in 2020 and her story, ’57 Days’, placed second in the 2019 NYC Midnight Fiction Contest. AJ recently attended the Bread Loaf 2021 Writers’ Conferences and will be a Fall 2022 Artist in Residence at the Bryn Du Art Center.