Water is pushing in from all sides, the ripped chunk of foam keeps slipping out of her grasp, and let’s face it, she’s going to die and be eaten by sharks if she doesn’t freeze to death first. She didn’t even want to come on this stupid school trip. “Come on, Grace, you’ll have a great time,” they said. “Get out there and live a little.”
Just as she slips underwater, brow furrowed and frowning at death, Alex shows up, looking jiggly as jello through the water. His scrawny wrists and too-big hands dive in after Grace like a pelican and schlep her to the surface. Cold water gives way to colder air, and then she’s shivering in a puddle on an inflatable orange raft.
“Hi,” Alex says, completely normal, as if people aren’t sinking all around them, and the air becoming quiet, churning water becoming still. His smile flares like white-hot coal, too bright to look at, but Grace knows there are times you don’t turn away from heat and this is one of them.
When they met in English class three years ago, Alex was missing his two front teeth. That was weird for a sixth-grader, and she immediately disliked him. But as the weeks wore on, she became fixated on the gap. She found herself noticing things that could fill it: square white pebbles at the beach, supermarket bins full of pale beans. Sometimes during class, she’d go into a trance, paper airplanes crash-landing around her while she folded notebook paper into origami teeth.
But that was a long time ago. She doesn’t think about boys anymore. Now when her mind wanders, it’s how would I barricade the room against zombies and what would be a more reliable weapon, the steel ruler or a chair leg? The chair, obviously—she isn’t going to rap a monster’s knuckles—but how would she unscrew the leg in time? And if she already had a screwdriver, what would she need the leg for? She considers the merits of sewing a screwdriver into the lining of her backpack, files the thought away for sometime when she’s not floating in a soup of dead people.
Alex is looking at her the way he has been for the past few weeks, like he’s hungry and full at the same time. She pretends not to notice.
Instead, she looks at their classmates drifting quietly past like logs. Their face-down, unmoving anonymity blends in with the litter of life preservers, crates, and broken boards that bob around them.
Grace opens her mouth to say something, but Alex is faster.
“Grace Ann Jemima Tuesday Black, I’m in love with you,” he says, and Grace focuses on the gel in his hair, his shiny acne, the cut on his forehead; anywhere but his teeth. She doesn’t have time for whatever it is he wants. Not now, not ever. She has books to read, TV to watch, watery vodka to choke down in the coat closet.
At least he doesn’t push her for a response. He seems content with having said it.
Grace fishes a life vest out of the water and hands it to Alex, then struggles to untangle another from Mrs. Cavanaugh’s floating corpse. Alex kneels beside her and helps her roll the driftwood-like bulk of the teacher’s body, freeing the other arm loop. Grace sits back, flotation device in hand, and Mrs. Cavanaugh drifts on.
“Is the Captain dead?” she asks, as they put their vests on.
The bulky material messes up his hair when he tugs it over his head. He says, “I think everyone is.”
Grace tugs the straps tight and scoots into the center of the life raft, where instructions are printed on the rubbery material. Arrows and dotted lines indicate the possibility of a structure,
“Hey. I think this thing pops up into a tent.”
Ten minutes later, they’re enclosed in a shady orange bubble with clear rubber window panels.
It’s stupid, how convenient life can decide to be after a great big fuck up.
TWO WEEKS LATER
Sometimes, when Alex sleeps, Grace paddles closer to the floaters and watches them, their bloated flesh and jelly eyes, the holes in their cheeks from hungry birds. Grace gets it. She’s tired of fish, too.
Alex drifts in and out of consciousness. He’s hungry, too hungry for sleep, where his dreams are filled with rare meat and crisp, fatty skin. The dreams are great; it’s the waking up part he can’t handle. He’s seen the way Grace watches the bodies, her eyes tracking the movements of birds, fish, and sharks as they feed. Alex and Grace are both out of their element, but Grace has always been better at fitting in, at learning what’s expected.
He looks away when she starts to pull a strip of grayish meat off Hannah Oliver’s skull. The sound of chewing follows him into his dreams.