“So, you come here often?”
I was an idiot. I have no idea how to be suave, so the sentence escaped my mouth in a rush of adrenaline. It was definitely a ‘panic pick up line.’ I am too much of a coward to ever speak to people. I get tongue tied, make a few noises, panic and leave. I’m not stupid. I know she was just people and I’m people too-erm, a person too-but anxiety is crippling.
She stopped shoveling salt water taffy into a box long enough to look up at me with her wide spaced sparkly gray eyes. Those eyes did things to my insides. Everything was suddenly too close and too warm. I had never in my life seen eyes that deep and full of glitter. I’m not poetic. She had glitter eyes.
Stunned, all I could do was stare and I try desperately to remember how to breathe. A large tee covered her from neck to mid-thigh like the tackiest dress. ‘Lifeguard’ in red swam across the shirt and it was soaking wet in spots. She or the short or the shop itself smelled like something had crawled out of the high tide. She was shoeless.
No one seemed to have noticed her but me. They were all blind, probably, because her hair was shockingly pink and down to her t-shirt covered butt. And on top of the bright hair and outward weirdness, she was the most attractive woman I had ever seen.
“It’s Salt Water Taffy Season,” she told me, smiling with bright white teeth, “I love saltwater taffy. Do you like it?”
“I ah, it um get’s stuck in my teeth,” I reply brilliantly.
Her gray eyes flood with worry. “You have to suck on them until they get soft,” she tells me.
“Thanks,” I said and got a soft smile as my reward.
She tossed her hair over one shoulder and went back to trying to fill the box with all the salt water taffy the store had. Once the box was full, her eyes met mine again, calculating. With a wide wink, she stuffed the entire box under her shirt and raced out of the store. The teenager watching the register didn’t give chase. He hardly even looked up from the magazine he had spread over the counter. In an even tone he said, “Hey, you stop.”
I slipped out of the shop a few seconds later so the teenager wouldn’t think I was in on the salt water heist, not that he would care. He was definitely up for employee of the month. Once out in the bright sun, I scanned the crowd for pink. The boardwalk was teeming with children, parents, and couples. Giant stuffed animals trailed from tired parents’ obscuring the view. I walked from one end of the boards to the other before giving up. The thief was gone. The disappointment I felt was a punch to the gut. She was the most interesting person I had spoken to all summer and now she had vanished into the air. I went home.
I tried to give up on her but the Salt Water Taffy Thief stayed with me. Every time I was near a shop or on the boards, I couldn’t resist the urge to hunt for her. Sometimes I thought I would catch a glimpse of her but it was always my imagination. Still, I kept my ear to the ground for any more salt water taffy heists. There were three. A man at the pizza shop told me pounds of the stuff had gone missing. He didn’t know she was the pink haired beauty I had met.
I spent every summer down the shore watching the house for a friend who hated the tourist season but hated the idea of renting more. The house was on the bay with lovely color themed rooms and it was a great way to recharge after teaching ten-year-olds all year. And because I was practically a local, I preferred to go down to the beach after most of the families and the lifeguards had gone home for the day. I would set up my blanket, slather on sunblock and pull out a book to read. A week after I had seen the thief, I did just that.
The lingering heat forced me out into the ocean. I swam out past the breakers and rolled onto my back, only doing what I had to do to stay afloat. Blue sky arched above me with not a single puffy cloud appeared to ruin it. This is how the world should look; serene and blue, not noisy and full of spitballs.
Before I knew it the blue was deepening, darkening. I sat up and started to tread water. The sun had slipped down to the edge of the water and as I watched the sky turned a magnificent crimson tinged in cinnamon before fading into a dark plum. The ocean ate the sun and left me alone. I sighed. It was time to go back to the house.
Except the shore was much farther away than I remembered it being. I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. I struck out with long strokes. I wasn’t worried. I was a strong swimmer. I was more annoyed that I was going to ruin my peaceful moment with a dash for the beach. A tail slapped the water near me. Startled, I spun to see if it was the soft rounded dorsal fin of a dolphin or the more vertical, straighter of a shark.
The slap happened closer to me. I backed away and continued to head for the shore. The current picked up and at first, I thought it would be a bro and toss me up onto the beach. Instead, it dragged me backward, closer to the tail slapping the water. But the ocean was crueler still and I hadn’t checked to see what the undertow was before swimming out. A large wave crashed over my head and I was dragged under.
I was in inky black unable to tell up from down as the currents buffeted me. Things brushed my legs and arms. My lungs burned. I wanted to exhale. I didn’t. I knew better. What was in my lungs was all I had left. I made a decision to strike out in a direction. I had no idea if it was up or down. The water was numbing my extremities now. The pressure in my ears was building and the things were terrifying. I still didn’t know whose tail had been within slapping distance of me and where it was now.
I chose wrong. The pressure increased. I spun around to try again. Flailing, I was lost in the dark, cold water. My mouth opened and bubbles escaped. Heaviness filled my bones. I was too tired to panic. I stopped fighting.
I shot forward gasping for breath. I flailed and a strong hand gripped mine, squeezing it. Confusion flooded me as sunlight hit my skin and soft blanket met my legs.
“Safe,” a familiar voice told me. She repeated the word until it seeped into my sun-warmed skin.
My saltwater taffy thief sat beside me with her cloud of pink hair. It was damp and curling around her face making her a pink fluffy angel. She was grinning. I smiled back. Surrounded by saltwater taffy wrappers and sitting on my blanket in her bare feet, she fluffed my hair affectionately. She was wearing a lemon yellow muscle tee with a whale on it and nothing else.
“Hi,” I said, dazed.
“You want one,” she asked, holding up a plastic bag full of candy.
My stomach felt like it was full of saltwater. My head hurt and my sinuses burned. I was dry but since I had sat up, water was trickling out of my ears and I could feel sand everywhere and I mean everywhere. Sugar was the last thing I should be putting in my battered body.
“No thanks. I’m not hungry. What happened?”
She sniffed. “You didn’t listen to me. I slapped the water to get you to go away from the bad currents but you swam right into them.”
“You slapped the water? I thought I saw a tail. I thought you were a shark!” I exclaimed to giggles.
“Lucky you, it’s still Salt Water Taffy Season and I was near the beach. I dragged you out.”
Bemused, I thanked her and offered, “You can get salt water taffy all year long. They don’t stop selling it after the tourists leave.”
She shook her head like I was a particularly stupid specimen of the human race. I couldn’t blame her. I felt that way about myself most of the time. “Can’t steal it if there’s no crowd to disappear into. As it is, I’ve hit my last store. I have to be careful and not steal too much. I can’t get caught.”
“Why not buy some?” I asked.
“No money,” she said and her gray eyes brightened, the sparkle swirling. I felt like I could drown in them which was unfortunate after my almost drowning. “I don’t have a job. Jobs are a weird concept. Do you have one?” she asked.
“A job? Yeah, I teach math,” I told her.
She counted out loud as she ate candy and I grinned. I wanted to see her again. I wanted to see her again and again.
“Do you live out here?” I asked.
Bobbing her head, she gathered the wrappers and raced them away to a trash can. In seconds she was back, stretching long pale legs out beside me. The skin was just a bit too pale, almost like the underbelly of a snake or a fish. She took large handfuls of her hair and finger combed it until it behaved. Her body was lean if well-muscled.
“Do you have a home,” I asked.
She glanced out at the water and ignored the question.
“What’s your name?”
No answer came and she bumped my shoulder before standing up. “Stay out of the bad currents.”
“Wait,” I called.
She walked out into the waves. Halfway out, she turned back to wave at me. I waved back. Seconds later a tail slapped the water.
Three days later I bought all the salt water taffy I could find and left it on the beach.
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