The earliest memories I have are of me and my sister walking across the beach at the sunset, picking up shells that caught our interest. Waves lapped at our ankles and feet, giving small greetings and sand crabs buried down at sight. The sky blushed colors of butter yellows, salmon pinks, rose reds, lilac purples, and cerulean blues.
Sand squished between my bare toes and the breeze whispered things in my ear as it rushed by and ticked my face. Once in a while, my hand would brush my sisters, and her pinkie would take mine and make me smile. We had done it so many times our fingers clicked together perfectly like puzzle pieces. My sister, Arya, and I would walk, hand in hand, until the sun was only a sliver above the dark ocean and our parents called us home.
I remember climbing over the dunes, dry sand sticking to my feet, and trying not to drop my shell collection. Arya would laugh and I'd grin. When we got home our mother, Margo would remind us quickly that we needed to wipe our feet before we made it any further. Then she'd shoo us upstairs, into bed, and into dreamland.
That was before... well... The Incident.
My mother gave birth to two beautiful young girls and named them Arya and Everleigh. I'm the latter. My sister was older than me by two years, and even though we had our differences, we were as close as sisters could ever be.
Arya kept her hair long and it flowed down her back in sandy waves. My hair was a darker honey color and I preferred its length just a bit below my shoulders. We both had the same eyes - gray to dark blue. Since we lived on the beach, we shared the same warm beige skin tone but freckles splattered my cheeks, nose, shoulders, arms, and knees.
But skin tone and eye color weren't the only things we had in common. We loved surfing, collecting shells, late-night walks across the dunes, hunting for crabs, fishing with our father, reading, and going to our favorite gift shop, Tide Pools. We also really liked drawing - but I was better at it. Arya described her drawings as 'stick figures that went through a blender', which always made me laugh.
I loved my sister so much. She was my rock. My lighthouse in a storm. Wherever she went, I did, when she got in trouble, we both took the blame. Whatever secrets one person had, the other knew and swore to keep it hidden. You couldn't mess with Arya and not get told off by me. You couldn't hurt me and not get beat up by my sister. That's just how it was.
Well, again, before The Incident.
It happened on June fifteenth, a week before my fourteenth birthday. School had just gotten out for the summer and Arya and I grabbed our swimsuits, slathered sunscreen over our noses, opened the garage, and took off down the street with our boogie boards under our armpits.
We giggled as we pointed out who was visiting Carpinteria. You could always tell who was on vacation. They ran on the sand like total drunks whereas beach residents' feet seemed to skip over the sand. The waves were perfect, if not a little bit big. But me and Arya didn't slow down.
We jumped in the water, laughing and shrieking at the cold and I strapped my boogie board string around my wrist. Arya copied me and we pushed out into the ocean holding our boards over our heads so the waves didn't knock them out of our hands.
We got to a calm part of the ocean, turned our boards towards the shore, and waited. We rode small waves for a bit before we felt a pull. You could always tell a Party Wave was about to hit when you got sucked into the ocean. Me and Arya grinned at each other in anticipation and I felt my feet leave the seafloor no matter how hard I kicked.
"I invite you to my party!" My sister and I screamed, laughing as the wave crashed over us. It was a silly tradition, but we did it anyway.
I remember catching the wave too late and seawater slammed into me. It dragged me down and I flipped over my board, washing machine style. Living on the beach prepares you for this - you know you'll surface soon - but it doesn't make it any less scary.
I tumbled out onto land, snorting the water out of my nose and wiping my stinging eyes. "Phew," I said, shaking my head, water spraying from my hair. I looked around, expecting to see Arya jump up from wherever she was. But she didn't.
I waited with growing panic while the Party Wave dispersed and the last bit crashed against the shore. Then I spotted something small and white, floating away.
I dumped my board in the sand, ripped the handcuff off, and ran to it. I stepped on sharp pieces of coral and rocks, cutting my feet but I just moved faster.
The board was missing its lower half, torn in two, and the string with the velcro cuff was gone. I was screaming by now, looking around wildly. My sister was nowhere to be seen.
I grabbed the board and tore off to home, my feet stinging as they hit the ground. I threw open the front door, sobbing for my parents.
They were at my side in a flash, asking me what was wrong.
Everything had gone so fast, but as soon as my parents ran out the door, leaving me on the stairs, everything slowed down.
I took the quickest shower ever to be known to man.
I put bandaids on my feet and wrapped them up with ace bandages. It helped a little bit.
After five and a half hours my neighbor, Miss Partridge came in. She sat me on the couch, took my hand, and told me the worst news I had ever imagined.
My sister was dead.
I found out later from my parents that she had also gone under the wave, hit her head on something hard, and was knocked unconscious before drowning. It took the coast guard a while to find her body, but when they did my parents refused to let me see her.
They did, however, give me the braided string anklet she wore. I tied it around my ankle, fingers trembling. At first, I had cried myself to sleep each night, ate obsessively, and stayed in my room all the time. After that, I just felt... numb. I cried all the tears I had out, I couldn't put a fork in my mouth and I sat on the couch, staring at the door.
I don't think I had ever prayed that much in my whole life combined up to that point.
My parents eventually got me to eat little bits of food each day. Maybe a saltine cracker or two, a few almonds, some turkey. But never more than that.
I guess they got worried because after a week they loaded me into the car along with some bags and started to drive. I stayed silent, staring out the window until I noticed the parking lot that gave way to sand. I jumped, put my hands on my seatbelt, and squeezed it tightly.
"Mom," I whispered, my voice cracking. My mother turned in her seat and shot me a smile.
"Yes, sweets? I thought we'd have a picnic for lunch." I could see that after coping, my parents wanted to revisit the beach, but I wasn't ready.
The car came to a stop and my dad got out, came to my door, and opened it.
"Talley ho!" He cried, smiling. "Out out out! Let's go hit some waves." My voice got stuck in my throat and I swallowed.
"No," I said, voice cracking, hands gripping the seatbelt tighter. My dad, who had been walking away, turned to me.
"What?" He said and I felt hysteria take over.
"No, no no no!!" I screamed. Tears shot down my cheeks. My parents tried to calm me down but I refused to move so after a while they just took me home and put me to bed.
The next day they sent me to a therapist.
I refused to talk to her for the first week, but one day she took my hand, smiled softly, and whispered,
"She would be proud of you." and I promptly burst into tears.
My therapist, Celeste, wanted me to go back to the beach. But I couldn't. At nights I had the same nightmare over and over. I'd be surfing or boogie boarding when suddenly something in the water would grab me and yank me down. The last thing I'd see was my sister, holding out her hand as I drowned.
I'd wake up, yelling for her. My parents hardly slept anymore. I hardly slept anymore. I'd stare out the window at the stars until my vision went blurry with tears.
She haunted me. Day and night. Every corner I turned, she was there, talking on her phone. Every closet I walked into, she was playing hide and seek with me. Every door I opened, she'd scream 'Surprise!'.
At last, I couldn't take it.
In the middle of the night, I threw on a hoodie over my sleep shirt, stuffed my hair into the hood, and creeped out my window. I made it to the beach in a few minutes and slowed down as I reached the sand. The waves roared at me, angry, and I glared back.
"What?!" I yelled. The waves crashed against my feet. While it once was a friendly welcome, now the ocean seemed like it wished to drag me into its murky depths too. I picked up a rock and threw it as hard as I could. It flew a bit below plunking down into the water.
The waves crashed against my feet again, soaking the cuffs of my pajama bottoms. I looked down and noticed Arya's anklet, still tied around my leg. I kneeled, untied it, and turned back to the ocean.
"You took her, you took parts of me, so just take the rest!" Salty tears ran down my cheeks and the wind made me shiver. I threw the anklet as hard as I could. It didn't make it very far, but with the next receding wave, it disappeared.
My legs gave out and I fell on the ground, sobbing and hugging my knees. "Screw you," I whispered to the ocean.
Suddenly I felt somebody sit next to me and my head snapped up. It was my mom. She wrapped her arm around my shoulder and I leaned into her, crying even harder.
When my sobs quieted down, my mother handed me something. It was my favorite ring of Arya's. Silver with a blue jewel. I looked at my mom and she smiled, leaning her forehead against mine.
"This time, don't throw it away." She whispered and I smiled softly. I guess she saw my temper tantrum. I slipped the ring onto the finger it fit best - my left middle - and took my mom's hand. We watched the ocean for a bit, our only company the moon, the stars, and my sister watching over us from above.