Salty Hands

By Bethany Votaw

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The anticipation and excitement bubbled in the classroom. The smell of coffee from the mugs the teachers and parents held mixed with the smell of axe, a new potion recently discovered by a slew of seventh graders.

“Bethany, you’re in Miss. Santo’s group.” I nod, letting the excitement rise and fall in a single breath, I tried to hide my smile. I am in Robby’s group. He is one of three guys taller than me in our class, and he made a comment about my hair last week. He talks to his friend, my friend too, Dax, and I join them, working hard to insert myself into the conversation about some video games. I don’t have video games; I don’t even have a tv. Well, we do have a TV, but it only plays movies. We don’t watch movies much anymore. We don’t do much anymore. Life turned to a routine of school, home, quiet time, dinner and bed. 

I just stand awkwardly with the boys, wishing I had a girl in the group. There are other girls, but none I like. I don’t think any like me either.  I am an odd one out, an anomaly with the adults now, it’s because of my brothers, and what they brought the small town. My family is now interesting. I am fiercely protective of my brothers; I have to be. My two little chocolate chunks that came home from Africa with my parents last summer, the completion to our family because apparently, it wasn’t enough before. They’re the reason we don’t watch movies anymore, the reason we don’t do anything anymore, it’s okay though, they need attention, the quiet for their naps. I understand. 

Maybe that’s why I am more excited about this field trip than anyone else. I miss the beach, it is only an hour away, but we didn’t go once last summer, we used to go a couple times a week. I can’t wait to taste the salt on my tongue, poke the slimy creatures in the tide pools, and freeze my ankles in the cold pacific water. I shiver thinking about the cool autumn air that will chap my lips and turn my cheeks red. 

The teachers are bustling about, checking off names and refilling coffee cups, taking last-minute trips to the bathroom. Old people always have to use the bathroom. The parent volunteers looking like the Mona Lisa, a distant smile plastered on their faces, half tired and half confused, wondering why they signed up for two hours on a bus with a bunch of seventh graders. I don’t blame them, I hate bus rides too, I always need to sit in the front so I can look out the window. I didn’t eat breakfast today just in case. I get sick sometimes, sometimes it just happens.  A sour thought, a “what if” spiral can turn my stomach enough to create a flurry of flu-like symptoms. 

“Line up!” someone calls.  We listen and like trained seals, we fall into line even though we know where the buses are.  I am thankful for the directions, decisions I don’t have to make. I am behind Robby, he smiles at me, a real smile, it makes its way to his eyes, he is excited too. I know he likes me, at least a little, that’s what my sister said. She is in the classroom next to mine, my twin, we don’t look like it though we are told we act like it.   Maybe she just told me that so I would make a fool of myself in front of him. She wouldn’t do that, probably. 

The excited group is like a herd of young horses, prancing down the halls and squeezing in the bus, I find myself across from Robby. In the back of the bus. It just happened; it was honestly an accident, but I am suddenly more grateful for my empty stomach. I feel butterflies turning to bees, stinging my insides. I don’t know why. It is not as if I am about to confess my “like” for Robby, I would never do that. I always wait for the guy to do that. 

Each guy that has told me that they liked me- like like me- has been someone I had never given a second glance. Boys that thought making racecar noises counted as a talent and spent eight minutes spitting in a microphone at the talent show as proof. 

“Sorry Travis” I told him, my tone sickly sweet to cover my annoyance, “I don’t like you like that. You know I am just friends with everyone.” It was true, I was known for being nice, but that’s just because no one could read my thoughts, except for my sister. Travis took it well, at least he didn’t cry, he was two heads shorter than me and acted like his size most of the time. I didn’t even tell my sister about that one, not worth mentioning. She probably knew anyway. 

I see her class board the bus behind us. She is with a group of girls, and I suddenly feel the need to search for a girl to talk to. I don’t find any, and a parent volunteer sits next to me, cutting off any chance of conversation with Robby, not that we had said much at all to begin with. 

I pull out a book, suddenly desperate to avoid any conversation with the adult, the world grips me, unable to peel my eyes from the pages I succumb to the spell and drink in the words, letting my mind forget, just forget. The adults would ask about my new brothers, everyone knows about them, hard to miss considering they are the only black kids in town. I don’t want to talk about it, not that I hate it or anything, they’re innocent and precious, they’re my favorite, but I am tired. So tired. The book is a better place to spend my time. The brothers will still be there when 

I get back. 

The bus pulls out, the chatter swells like the ocean tides we journey to see, soon the voices mellow, the rocking of the bus lulling some students into a calm state of sweet quiet, some even dozing, only to be interrupted by the smell of sour yoghurt and the retching of a student throwing up their breakfast

Except I didn’t have breakfast, instead I am retching up putrid green bile, it coats my mouth in a nasty slime that only makes me wretch some more, my abdomen burns with each heave. I feel the eyes on me a hundred eyes staring at this show, the chaperone waddled up front to grab a bag, too late though, we all know it. Ten minutes of reading and ten minutes of driving was enough to create a poison in my stomach, poison splattered on the floor with a hard and wet sound. At least there weren’t any chunks, just slime oozing in a puddle, shifting with the turns of the bus, making little rivers and streams of green and yellow. A map of my tides on the dirty floor. 

My teacher comes back and she guides me to the front, plopping me in the front seat next to her and a bunch of other moms. I am surrounded by adults, but at least I have a window. I smile and nod at their questions. I can speak, but I don’t want to. I never want to. I feel like a thousand blankets have covered me, they are being stuffed down my throat and into my lungs.  I can still hear the horrified chatters form the back of the bus and the shushing my teacher gives them as she bends down, gloves in hand, and cleans up the green goo I left behind. My book was the other casualty, a prisoner of war, held hostage at the back of the bus. 

My only relief is when we get off the yellow beast. I pretend it didn’t happen, I wait for my group, the A team on the back of the bus I’m part of that team. The other class’s bus rolls to a stop behind us and I wait to see my sister hop out. She is a firm fixture in the middle of the bus. Jordan wiggles her eyes at me, I shrug, and she finds her group. She knows something is strange, something had happened. That’s what twins do, they ask if each other are okay, what they do with the information is purely environmental and conditional. She doesn’t say anything, I am glad she can read my mind, I usually am. 

I find my group, Robby walking out first, Britney in tow.  He wears a hat, which makes my stomach flip. We aren’t allowed to wear hats in school. I think about telling him, I don’t, I already spent time with the adults upfront. I am not contagious, but I feel like I am, like I could be, should be. 

“You good?” he asks, adjusting his hat and it makes me want to throw up again, I smile showing my teeth but close my lips in an instant later. Would the green goo coat my teeth? Tinge them extra yellow? I feel yellow. 

“I’m good.” I say, “Probably something I ate,” I lie. He laughs and so does Dax, who makes some comment about how he had food poisoning once. I feel the bile in my throat again, a lingering burn stark against the cool sea air. 

We walk the trail, each student holding a notebook in order to make it look like we were taking notes. Students took their shoes off, leaving them in piles. I didn’t, mostly because I knew the rocks by the tide pools were sharp, and because Robby and Britney didn’t either. I see my sister’s class in the distance. She has her shoes off. I suddenly want to leave my class, leave the A team, and join her, take my shoes off too, wade in the frozen water with her, kick sand in the wind. Instead, my group makes our way to the tide pools. The slabs in the sand a foundation for the creatures we aim to find. 

The tide is sucked out with force, and a mom explains how they timed the trip perfectly, making it here just in time for low tide. As if she had something to do with controlling the ocean. It was the moon or something, which makes no sense to me, I let the mystery of the water remain a being that controls itself. Never turn your back to the sea, she’ll reach up and hug you in a wet and frigid embrace, pulling you back with her. 

Britney screams and the boys flock to her, she points to a tidepool and at a small crab in it, “it tried to pinch me!” Dax kneels in the rocks, preparing to catch it. I roll my eyes, I think Robby catches it, good. 

Jumping over wet spots and across rocks I make my way to the farthest reaches of the smattering of tide pools, I watch the ocean rush in and out, suddenly wishing I would be swept away with it. I feel a person approach, I can tell because their breathing goes against the wind.  

“Would you be mad if I pushed you in?” Robby asks, and unexpected relief floods me, I expected a parent, ready to give me a “don’t stray too far lecture.” 

“I wouldn’t be too mad,” I joke, but it’s not a joke I realize, “but I’d pull you in after me.” It seemed to be the right thing to say, and he laughs. 

“Okay,” he says, a smirk on his lips. I’m sure he thinks he’s stronger than me, he probably is, but I am faster, and I swim like a mermaid, the water doesn’t scare me, I wish he’d pushed me in. 

He climbs up rocks, I follow, the cold edges grading against my palms, the sea air making my fingers numb and my hair big. He sits, and I sit next to him, thankful for this. I hate heights, but still, I find myself wanting to jump. 

He reads my thoughts, “Ever get this I don’t know, weird urge to jump?” I raise my eyebrows and he rushes on, “Not like I would actually do it, you know, but it’s just my mind thinking that I could.”

I understand. I lean over the edge and the feeling of falling and my stomach dropping makes me pause. I could jump. It would be cold at first, but I would get used to it. I would quietly float away and hope that someone missed me. I am nothing but a speck of dust in the wind. I could probably jump, and the wind would carry me away before I even hit the water. 

Britney and Dax reach the top too, climbing from the other side of the rock. Britney sits next to Robby. We talk about things, and we get stuck in a loop, repeating the word enough, enough, enough, until it no longer sounds like a word. Some type of drug maybe. A dad catches us, snaps a picture and tells us to climb down, explaining that “the tide is coming in, you could get stuck up there!” It isn’t but we climb down anyway. 

“Dare you to grab it!” Dax exclaims as we pass a giant pool. I see what he is gesturing to, a hermit crab. I hate crabs. I hate the idea of them pinching me. I reach in any way. My sleeve gets wet, but I pull it out by the shell, it’s flailing arms make me squirm, I set it on the rocks and we watch it run around, a group of kids and parents gather, looking at its strange movements. Robby has already left. I pull myself away from my crab and my attention to find him. 

We spend hours searching for starfish, even a game of tag on the beach. Our hands brush as we reached for the same underwater creature, my cheeks flame and so do his, warm against the wind.  Or hands linger together in the water before I pull away. 

I find my sister, we eat lunch on the rocks, a reprieve from social interactions. The classes don’t usually mix, the cliques and isolated groups preformed. We are the outliers, we always are, the representatives of each class. I am tall, she is short, I have blonde hair, she has brown, we are twins. We are the same but different. The barrage of questions about who is better at math or who can run faster is always exhausting. I am called the athletic one, she is named the pretty one. Why can’t I be both? I force down the crust of my sandwich, she’ll tell mom if I throw it to the seagulls. She does that, makes sure I do what I am supposed to, which is why separate classes create slices of freedom in my life. I am surrounded by students, but I am also finally alone, but I still search my sister out, find her and am always relieved to be with her. 

She tells me the funny stories that occurred on her bus own bus trip. Joel got the entire bus singing 99 bottles and the teachers only cut them off at 74 bottles. I omit my puking performance. She knows I am being weird; she knows I am tired, just so tired. She never asks why. The world is swallowing me, but she fills the space with talking and stories and I love her for it. We look at the water and I imagine seeing a whale and I feel myself falling, hoping to be swallowed up by the gaping mouth of the imaginary whale swimming to us. 

I find my class, we draw shapes in the sand, some parents force us to write our notes down. I do, spending far too long on a mediocre drawing of starfish, my tidepool sketch a constellation of the night’s sky. I look up to the gray clouds that shapeshift above us, the swirling patterns making ghosts that threaten to lure children away.

The hours at the beach come to an end, but I can’t resist it and I sprint to the water, I only planned to rinse my hands off, wanting to lick the salt from them later, but the ocean is wild, and she rushes for me as I run to her, like lovers in a movie, she covers my feet, socks, and pants, I pretend not to care, but the cold makes my head pound and teeth hurt. People notice our collision, but they don’t say anything, I think about walking out to the horizon, like a lost child finding her way home. I’d let the seafoam cover me, I’d become trapped in the tangles of the seaweed and they’d hold me under. Instead, I let the water rush over my shoes again. A compromise.

I sit in the front of the bus again, my head down as each student trickles by. I see the shoes of Robby, Dax, and Britney as they filter on past staring at my frozen feet, now blocks of ice. The trees whir by us, the scent of pine making its way into the bus that now smells like decaying bird. I stare at the sand in my fingernails, willing each grain to stay forever. The winding and turning of the carved out road is broken by the sound of gravel and hissing. 

“Bus is overheating.” the driver calls. “Could be a while.”

The trip is extended, and it brings both excitement and dread.  I need a new battery. Minutes turn into an hour, then two. My sister’s bus slows and stops, promising to take a message in a bottle to the bus barn, where they will return with another bus. I watch as my sister smiles and laughs with her friends as their bus shuffles out of the shoulder, leaving us marooned sailors behind. A lump clogs my throat. My eyes burn and I don’t know why. I sniff the trees and stomp out my cold feet, waking them up. We spread out on the gravel, watching the occasional car drive by. The rocky beach borders a forest, and I want to wander and get lost, maybe the bus will leave me. 

“Ladies over here!” my teacher calls, and I line up, I missed the earlier conversation, too busy dreaming of a forest witch who will call me home. I imagine the bony tendrils of her fingers curling around my wrist, cooling my blood and luring me away. Is it luring if run to her? 

“One at a time, walk down the bank and find a tree.” She laughs, shaking her head, but the dancing girls are serious, wide-eyed, and determined. The boys are far from view, hidden by the bus.  The dance is contagious, I feel it too, tickles in my body. My turn comes and I find a tree, far back in the woods, and for a moment I pray the forest witch will come. I wait until the heavy air makes me shiver. 

I squat like the crab I held earlier, my pants on the ground, my body choked by afternoon breeze, goosebumps prickle my skin. I with the cascade of pee and I feel warm, I feel it on my feet, on my legs, I see the river I made flow to my feet, to my hands, the small hill I squat on now a mountain runoff. The pulsing river is too strong to stop, and I sink into myself as my frozen feet thaw. 

I shuffle up, wiping my hands on my fresh soaked jeans. No one will notice, no one will notice. I spit and wipe the pee into my jeans, even more, I pray that the smell of axe, salt, and dead fish will be enough. I smell my hands, no salt, something else.  I mourn the lost opportunity to taste the salt and wipe them again on my pants. I reach the top, another girl goes running down, looking for her own personal tree. I curse the witch for not finding me. 

I find Robby and Dax in the gravel, each with a stick, tic tac toe taking up their mind. I sit with them, crossing my legs in the dirt, they already start to drift to sleep, thankful for the momentary warmth on my icy legs. We play, I win and lose, they do too. 

We sit against the wheels of the bus, surrounded by the smell of rubber, trees, and pee. Robby touches my goosebumps, which only give me more. We trace our hands in the dirt. He runs a finger against my hand, I imagine his fingers making trails in my hands covered in their dry urine. His fingers intertwined in mine.

About Bethany Votaw

Bethany Votaw is from a small town in Oregon where she grew up the oldest of five. She spends her time working from home, writing and playing with her dog. She gets most of her ideas from her dreams, which explains her eclectic collection of pieces and strange imagery.

You can follow Bethany on Goodreads at the following link https://www.goodreads.com/goodreadscombethanyvotaw

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