Out Among the Breakers – Hailey Plautz

The memories were always at their worst on clear mornings, especially when she had been cleaning. The smell of fresh linen filled the home and the dryer hummed steadily in the background. This used to be comforting to her, and in the back of her mind, she registered this. She stood with her arms wrapped around herself, staring out the large window by the front door. The view was of the long gravel driveway, twisting to the right behind high sea grass and trees, blocking out the street just beyond.
In these moments, she played in her mind the events of a nearly identical morning twelve months prior. In her memory she dressed her son in his thick, forest green sweater and his yellow rain boots. He chattered and danced as she tried to run a wet comb through his floppy blond hair, making faces at himself in the bathroom mirror. She chided him into taking four more bites of a sandwich and, as though he could feel that he was on the last of her good nerves, he offered her his most dazzling smile and said, “Mama, I love you.” She hung onto the scruff of his sweater as she wiped jelly from his mouth and then pressed her lips to his hair, breathing in the smell of his baby shampoo. Just another morning with Jonah.
She kissed her husband at the door and hugged Jonah tightly. She told him to be good and to listen to his father before sending them both off. It was at this point in the memory she became so anxious her imagination took over. In her fantasy she stopped them at the door, told them they couldn’t go to the beach today. She told them how she felt deep in her gut that something was very wrong. Or she raced outside, chased the car down the driveway, screamed for them to stop. Of course, nothing had changed, though she would have given her very soul to make it so.
The reality was she watched her husband buckle Jonah into the back of their Jeep, a light wind tickled the grass and Jonah’s hair, and waved at them. She watched them drive down the lane and disappear behind the seagrass and the trees and then turned to her day. What she was ashamed to remember is the feeling of relief of watching them go, the happy sigh when she realized she would have an hour or so to herself. She picked up toys that Jonah would not immediately drag out; she folded laundry only once because Jonah was not there to trip over the piles; she blared music without worrying about the language in it, feeling just a little like the woman whom she had been prior to becoming a mother.
She heard the tires crunching over the gravel about an hour and a half after her husband and Jonah had left, as she was about to wipe down the kitchen counter. She shut off the music before Jonah could hear anything she would not want him to repeat, but was surprised to hear the sound of someone knocking heavily on her door instead of her husband entering. Even then, she felt none of what was to come, though when visiting this memory she would not understand how she could not have known.
Two men she did not recognize wearing local police uniforms were waiting for her. They asked if her name was Allie and if she was married to a man named James. She affirmed both questions. They explained there had been an accident with her son and asked would she please come with them to the beach. She hardly remembered finding her jacket and shoes, or climbing into the cruiser, but the beach remained clear in her mind. She squinted as the waves pounded into the shore, angry and massive despite the bright day. She watched a helicopter fly low overhead, vaguely thinking how she had never seen one so close.
Her husband was frantic and sobbing. His clothes were soaked and caked with sand, and he kept choking that he was so, so sorry. A member of the Coast Guard explained to her that a sneaker wave overtook Jonah and he was washed out to sea. Her husband was unsuccessful in retrieving him. She had a hard time listening, all she heard was the ocean roaring in her ears, bringing the world to a dull whir. The wind whipped the seagrass in bursts and tugged at her jacket and hair. She stared out into the sea and felt nothing, because she was sure the man was wrong. The waves were too big and Jonah was much too small to be in the water; Jonah couldn’t swim without his little life vest and orange arm floaties, and she hadn’t packed them for him to take.
Hours tick by slowly, men swarmed the beach, and she stood completely still. Her arms wrapped around herself and she scanned the nearby coastline, into the hills that broke up the long expanse of beach. She was waiting for Jonah to come running from there, down into her arms. Then she would comfort her husband and they would go home to eat the dinner she had started in the slow cooker. Jonah would eat the potatoes but refuse the chicken, and then he’d have a bath to wash the sand from his skin, and she would read to him, kiss him goodnight, and turn on his little star nightlight.
Jonah did not come from the beach, Jonah came from the water, way out against the sunset, between the breaking waves. She watched as the helicopter lowered its glinting basket, and when it rose again it was carrying something small. They flew away from the beach, toward the city. Soon a man with a walkie-talkie was saying they had found Jonah, would she and James please get back in the car to meet him. She and James climbed into the back of the cruiser. She did not remember the drive into the city, or anything she and James might have said to each other on the way. When they arrived they were not at a hospital, and for a moment she believed this meant Jonah was okay.
His tiny body was laid on a shining metal cart, a white sheet covering his naked lower half. His eyes had been shut, and he almost looked like he was just napping. His hair was still wet, and when she gently wiped it from his forehead, she felt salt and sand stuck to his cool skin. His skin was a shade wrong and his lips were blue. She asked where his clothes were, though she vaguely understood the answer to her question was no longer important.
She and James finally returned home after midnight. When she entered the kitchen and saw the crumbs of bread and globs of jelly from Jonah’s lunch still stuck to the kitchen counter, she felt something fall from deep inside herself and she screamed and screamed and screamed. Long after she climbed into bed, she laid in the dark and thought of her son laying naked and alone on a morgue tray instead of in his warm bed upstairs. When she finally dozed off and woke again, she rose in a panic and rushed upstairs to assure herself she was only dreaming, that of course Jonah was in his bed along with eight of his favorite stuffed animals. The morning panic happened dozens of times after the accident, but now she knew, even in her sleep, that Jonah was gone. Sometimes she missed the fleeting belief that her son was going to wake up any moment, regardless of the agony that had followed.
Spotty memories of the weeks and months after losing Jonah flooded to her: the white-hot hatred she had felt toward James when he finally wiped up the mess from Jonah’s last lunch; the tiny blue casket that had been barely visible under a pile of flowers, teddy bears, and little toy cars; the box with his things that had been delivered five months after the funeral. The return of his clothes had been the hardest for her; it had been a cruel surprise to find the same police officer who had come to take her to the beach all those months ago standing on her doorstep. He held a plain office supply box out for her to take and said very sincerely that he hoped she and James were doing alright.
She had left the box unopened by the front door for more than a week. When she finally removed the lid, she only glanced inside at the items – his green sweater, his rain boots, a tiny pair of pants – before quickly replacing it. After a few days passed, she opened the box again and knelt beside it. She stared into it for what felt like hours, wondering how it was that these things had been returned to her but not Jonah. As she went to replace the lid, she thought of her son shut into a different, blue box and buried under feet of earth. A vague panic that Jonah was afraid of the dark rose in her stomach, and she left the lid laying on the floor. By the end of the next week, she had started to wonder what to do with his clothing; It felt wrong to leave them in the box to gather dust. She started with his boots. She placed them in his room, but soon she had picked them up and carried them into the living room. She thought about tossing them on the floor the way Jonah always had, but it felt akin to sacrilege. Eventually she stuck them beside her own boots in the closet at the foot of the stairs.
His sweater had been the most painful. She ran her thumb over the thick, green cording, the wool stiff with salt and sand. She remembered the way it had felt to her the last time she had dressed Jonah and breathed deeply into it, hoping to catch a whiff of baby soap still clinging to the fibers, but all she picked up was the smell of cardboard and mold. She filled the kitchen sink with warm water and soaked the sweater, added laundry detergent and a drop of Jonah’s shampoo, and gently scrubbed it clean by hand. When she was finished she hung it to dry on the line in the backyard, by the swing set Jonah had loved so much. Later, she folded it carefully and placed it in his drawer, as if by magic he might wear it tomorrow.
Sometimes she would sit on his bed while holding the sweater and let her head be filled with waves of him: his first steps, his popsicle-stained face, the sound of his laughter, how he had looked in the mortuary— The dryer let out a loud buzz. Startled, she turned to face the direction of the sound. Having lost her train of thought, she slowly unwound her arms from around herself and looked around the room, as if surprised to find herself there. She paused, took a deep breath that seemed to steady her, and allowed her feet to carry her away from the window and back to her day.

Hailey Plautz received a Masters in Behavior Analysis, but moonlights as a writer. She currently lives in Utah with her growing collection of books and plants.

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