Emma Rose is four years old the first time she enters the ocean alone. All her life, she’s lived with the beach at the end of her street. Her parents carried her into the waves the week she was born. When she learned to stand, they taught her to float. Older still, they showed her how to stretch her body out long, how to reach, and turn her head to breathe, letting the water guide her like a friend.
Now, her parents watch from towels on the shore. Sun reflects off the Dover chalk cliffs so they shine brilliant white. The wind plays with Emma Rose’s curls, and the tide garlands her toes with foam. She steps carefully and the water swirls up to her knees, her waist. There’s a small moment of doubt, but surely the water will keep her safe. She knows it as well as she knows the sound of her father’s voice, the touch of her mother’s hand.
Goose-pimples fade as she adjusts and the water shapes itself around her. Squinting, she pretends she can see all the way to France. Her parents showed her pictures in a book holding frozen moments of their lives before her. Her mother with curls so much like Emma Rose’s, her father with a smudge of flour on his nose, each of them proudly holding up a tray of pastries they made in the cooking class where they met.
Looking toward the land of her parents’ stories, Emma Rose knows she will cross the water one day. Not in a boat; she will swim.
Emma Rose stands on her tippy toes, then lets the water take her. She floats, lying on her stomach, putting her face in the waves. She opens her eyes.
Through the salt sting, the world blurs blue and grey. She lets a few bubbles escape to rise around her like pearls. Just as she’s about to turn her head to breathe, a face appears below her.
The eyes are grey, like Emma Rose’s, the color of waves under a sullen sky. The woman’s hair floats around her head, long and straight, tinted green like she’s been under water a long time. She smiles.
Emma Rose is so startled, she screams, and cold saltwater rushes into her mouth. Panicked, she forgets everything her parents taught her. Her limbs won’t cooperate. She can’t lift her face out of the water. She can’t remember which way is up.
Then hands catch her. Her father lifts her out of the water, and maybe the woman pushes her from below. Her father pats her back and she coughs water.
“Shhh,” her mother whispers. “It’s okay.”
They make a protective circle around her with their bodies, standing knee deep in the waves. Emma Rose cries, shock and fading fear. She clings to her father, her head on his shoulder, while her mother strokes her back. When her sobs turn to hiccupping coughs, her father carries her back to the shore.
“What happened out there, jellyfish?” her father asks.
His eyes are blue, like the water when the sun is bright and borrows pieces of the sky to wear like a gown. Her mother’s eyes are deep brown, like the water under the moon. No one has ever been able to explain to Emma Rose where her grey eyes come from.
Except once, her mother told Emma Rose she dreamed of the ocean the night she was born. Sometimes Emma Rose secretly believes she’s a princess from under the sea. Her parents found her on the shore, curled up in a giant oyster shell. The woman under the water must be a princess, too, a secret one, just like her.
“I…” Emma Rose hesitates. “I saw a fish. It surprised me.”
Emma Rose doesn’t dare peek to see if her parents believe her. The lie fizzes in her stomach, making her feel bad and good at the same time.
“Okay, jellyfish.” Her father smoothes her water-wet curls. “That’s enough for today. We can try again tomorrow.”
Her parents have always taught her not to quit when something is hard, but to keep going until it isn’t scary anymore. Emma Rose takes her father’s hand on one side, and her mother’s on the other. She walks between them up the path leading toward home. Next time, she promises herself she won’t be frightened, no matter what she sees.
* * *
Emma Rose is eleven years old the next time she sees the woman in the water, even though she swims in the ocean almost every day. Her bones have grown long under her skin, her body stretching like taffy. She wears her curls pulled back now, making herself sleeker.
She’s on the cusp of turning twelve. Tomorrow is her birthday, and she’s celebrating with friends. Her parents sent them to the beach with a hamper stuffed with food. Cold chicken. Home-baked bread. Lemonade in a glass bottle. A cake, layered with sponge and jam and frosted white, topped with the reddest strawberries.
Best of all, the girls are allowed to be alone. No parents to supervise them. They shriek and run, daring the edge of the waves. They splash each other, and pretend to be mad, then make up again. They braid strands of seaweed, making bracelets and necklaces and crowns.
None of the other girls know the water the way Emma Rose does, but she pretends to be like them. Rather than swimming, she stands waist-deep, dunking the other girls under the water and allowing them to dunk her in turn. She plays chicken, Bethany’s legs draped over her shoulders as they charge toward Sara and Maureen.
When they grow tired, they troop to the blanket spread on the shore, falling on the picnic like locusts. Then they lie for a while with their heads in each other’s laps, forming a lopsided circle as their stomachs settle.
Emma Rose ends up with her head in Corinne’s lap. She’s only known Corinne for two years; Corinne’s parents moved from Cornwall and she had to join their class halfway through the year. Sara, Maureen, and Bethany, she’s known since they were all five years old.
“Are you going to cut the cake?” Maureen asks after a few minutes, growing bored and fidgety.
Maureen has red-gold hair that Emma Rose has always admired, and freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes are bluer than Emma Rose’s father’s – like the ocean in pictures where the beaches are white sand and palms trees cast angular shadows on the ground.
Maureen sits up, upsetting the circle. Corinne’s legs twitch under Emma Rose’s head, but Emma Rose doesn’t move for a moment, just to see what happens. Corinne’s shadow falls over her as Corinne sits up, and Emma Rose feels the muscles of Corinne’s legs, imagining what they would feel like stretching and bunching through the water.
Corinne peers down at her. Her eyes are a color Emma Rose can’t quite name. Not brown, but not green either. Like the water when it’s choppy, sand stirred into the waves and catching the light, glinting with flecks of gold. Corinne drapes the seaweed crown she braided over Emma Rose’s brow. It’s damp and cold and smells of salt, but Emma Rose doesn’t shiver.
“Now you look like a fairy queen,” Corinne says.
She doesn’t quite smile, but her lips do something that changes her face, and it brings a fluttering tightness to Emma Rose’s stomach. She sits up too quickly, and the seaweed crown falls into her lap with a wet splat.
Maureen hands Emma Rose the cake knife, and Bethany passes plates around. Corinne touches Emma Rose’s wrist.
“You have to make a wish.”
Emma Rose pretends her face is underwater, seeing how long she can go before she turns her head to breathe. She’s still holding her breath when the last slice of cake is cut, and only then does she let it go.
After the other girls’ parents collect them, Emma Rose stays on the beach alone. Wind stirs the sea grass and wildflowers dotting the path leading home. Emma Rose thinks about France. She thinks about Corinne. She touches her forehead where the seaweed crown rested, and the skin is warm.
Emma Rose does what she always does when she’s frightened or sad or confused. She swims. She launches herself into the waves, thinking for a moment that perhaps the time is now, she will swim all the way across the Channel. But that’s stupid, and she knows it. Instead she flings her arms out as far as she can and kicks her legs hard, crossing back and forth parallel to the beach.
She isn’t fighting the sea, never that. She’s fighting herself. Exhaustion, that’s what she wants, bone-deep. She’ll sleep through her birthday, sleep for a whole week. It’s what she’s thinking when she sees the woman beneath her, her eyes grey and her hair drifting just the way Emma Rose remembers. Her hair seems a little greener, though, almost black, and the bones of her cheeks are sharper.
This time, Emma Rose doesn’t scream. She stills herself, sculling water to stay in place. The woman flashes pearly teeth, a sheening purple color like the inside of an oyster shell.
Emma Rose’s skin prickles. The woman’s eyes are a mirror for her own, even if everything else about her is different – the length and curves of her body, the dip of her waist, the prominent line of her ribs, the pallor of her skin. After a moment, it strikes Emma Rose that the woman is naked, and her skin flushes so hot she fears the water around her will turn to steam.
Emma Rose reaches down and the woman reaches up at the same time. Their fingertips touch, then their palms. The water keeps Emma Rose from telling whether the woman’s skin is cold.
Their lips meet next, the woman rising, Emma Rose falling. The woman’s mouth tastes of salt, of seaweed, the grit of sand, and the smoothness of a pearl. She tastes of everything but drowning. As long as their lips touch, Emma Rose can hold her breath forever.
With her mouth against the woman’s, Emma Rose thinks of Corinne. By the time she climbs back to the shore, her skin is so wrinkled it feels like it will slide off her bones, and her legs are trembling. Emma Rose turns to look at the water one last time, scanning it for a shadow beneath the waves, any glimpse of the woman. There is nothing, only the sun sinking and painting the water bright gold.
* * *
After her second encounter with the woman, Emma Rose begins swimming at least twice every day. She swims first thing in the morning before school, and first thing in the afternoon when she gets home. Days and weeks at a time pass where the woman keeps herself to a constant flicker of motion at the corner of Emma Rose’s eye. But other times, she glides close as a shadow, her face inches from Emma Rose’s own. When Emma Rose’s muscles burn and she wants to quit, the woman brings her lips close, closer, until they touch. Until they share a heartbeat, share breath, and Emma Rose feels she could swim forever and never stop.
Other times, the woman is nowhere to be seen. On those days, Emma Rose swims purely for herself. She comes to love the solitude as much as the company, but it’s a different kind of love. On those days, the water is hers and she knows one day she will cross it. Her name will be written alongside Gertrude Ederle, Amelia Gade Corson, Mercedes Gleitze, and Florence Chadwick.
She can’t be first to cross the Channel, but maybe she can be fastest? The most crossings? Maybe she’ll be the one to swim across and never come back. She’ll find another sea, another ocean, another crossing and just keep going, swimming her way around the world.
Emma Rose spends so much time in the ocean that her father jokes she will turn into a fish. Emma Rose can’t remember what wish she made before cutting her birthday cake, so she wishes for her father’s words to come true.
* * *
Emma Rose is sixteen the first time she kisses a girl outside the water. Her name is Martha. Corinne has long since moved away, and Emma Rose barely even thinks about her anymore.
The kiss with Martha happens on the bleachers at school. Martha runs track, her legs flashing graceful and long the way Emma Rose’s do in the water. She is faster than anyone else on the team.
Emma Rose and Martha have been friends for seven months when Emma Rose starts regularly watching track practice. Martha lives just a few streets over, so it only makes sense for Emma Rose to stay so they can walk home together.
The sun warms the bleachers, heat soaking through Emma Rose’s uniform to the back of her thighs. She watches Martha, her brown skin gleaming with sweat, even though her motions seem effortless. Gravity doesn’t apply; she pushes off the ground, and the earth pulls her along. Practice ends, and Martha comes over to the bleachers, grinning. Her frizzy hair is tied back in two poofs, and even they glisten with sweat, the black overlaid with droplets like a net of diamonds.
“That was brilliant,” Emma Rose says, then blushes. She’s been watching Martha run for weeks, why should this be any different?
Martha sits beside her, their knees almost touching, catching her breath. They talk about nothing for a while, then somehow they’re kissing. Emma Rose isn’t sure who started it, but she doesn’t care. Martha’s mouth tastes like the orange sports drink she says is her secret weapon – sugar-brightness exploding on Emma Rose’s tongue. The kiss goes on for so long, Emma Rose is sure she’s drowning. And when it ends, it’s far too soon.
When they finally break apart, Martha rests her forehead against Emma Rose’s, dampening it. Grey eyes meet deep brown, and they giggle. The laughter runs out, and they kiss again. The nervous fluttering in Emma Rose’s stomach calms; instead of butterflies, she’s full of sunlight, bursting out through her pores.
* * *
Emma Rose and Martha have been secret-not-so-secret official girlfriends for three months when Emma Rose brings Martha to the beach for the first time. She hasn’t been swimming as much lately, her afternoon sessions melting into time watching Martha practice, or going to the shops together, or pausing to kiss by the side of the road, around the corner of buildings, anywhere and everywhere they can. Emma Rose and Martha are constantly amazed by each other, discovering all the things they have in common, wondering how they managed to grow up so close to each other without ever knowing it because they didn’t go to the same school until now.
They play the ‘what if’ game. What if you’d never transferred schools? What if I’d transferred years ago and we’d known each other since we were five? What if we walked right past each other on the street one day when we were twelve and we never knew? And they both agree now that they’ve found each other, they need to make up for lost time.
“You never came to the beach when you were little?” Emma Rose asks, leading Martha down the flower-lined path.
Martha shakes her head. “My dad’s little brother almost drowned when they were kids. He’s been terrified of the water ever since.”
“My grandfather used to race sailboats,” Emma Rose says. “My dad always loved being out on the water. My mom wanted to be a marine biologist until she discovered a passion for baking and became a pastry chef. They’ve been bringing me here since I was a baby.”
The sun is setting, tinting the water shades of peach and coral. Standing on the shore, Emma Rose feels the tug of France, gentle, yet ever-present at the edge of her mind. There’s a pang of guilt. She’s been neglecting the water. And there’s something else that isn’t guilt; it’s almost fear. Emma Rose hasn’t seen the woman in the water since she first kissed Martha. It isn’t unknown for her to disappear for months at a time, but this feels different somehow.
“Fancy a swim?” Emma Rose pushes her doubt away and pulls her shirt over her head, revealing the swimsuit underneath.
“It’s getting late.” Martha looks at the water with unease.
“We won’t go in deep.” Emma Rose kicks off her shorts. “I promise I’ll hold your hand the whole time.”
That does the trick. Martha skims out of her clothes, and it turns out she’s wearing a swimsuit underneath her clothes too, which makes Emma Rose’s chest squinch in a complicated way.
She’s been thinking about telling Martha she loves her for days. The words are always on the tip of her tongue, but she keeps swallowing them down. She’s pretty sure Martha will say it back, but what if she doesn’t? What if she says it but doesn’t mean it? What if it comes out all wrong, or she scares Martha away?
They walk to the water’s edge. Martha hisses at the temperature; the waves tangle lace around her ankles. They take it slow. To their mid calves, their knees, their thighs. Waves surge around their waists, and Emma Rose lets herself fall backward. The water catches her and plays a soft game of tug of war. She smiles at Martha, in up to her armpits now. Emma Rose sees she’s standing on her tiptoes, afraid to cede the last bit of control.
Martha has never been anything but graceful; there’s something comforting in seeing her out of her element. It makes her more human.
Emma Rose holds out her hand. Martha takes it, letting Emma Rose guide her until the ground no longer supports her. In a moment, Emma Rose will put her arms around Martha’s waist. She’ll kiss her. She’ll finally say what she’s been longing to say.
Then, sudden as a blink, Martha is gone. All Emma Rose can do is stare. The water froths, Martha thrashing, and Emma Rose dives, trying to pull Martha to the surface. Something holds Martha down. Emma Rose catches a glimpse of a face beside Martha’s. Grey eyes meet grey. A flash of teeth. Emma Rose wants to pretend it’s a trick of churned water and flashing limbs, but she cannot. The woman’s face is undeniably there, and in this moment, she looks more like Emma Rose than ever, mocking her.
Emma Rose uses all her strength, and Martha pops to the surface like a cork, gasping.
“Are you o—” But Emma Rose doesn’t get any farther.
The sky bruises purple, the first pale stars beginning to appear. Martha’s pupils are impossibly wide, dark like the ocean where it’s deepest and coldest. She scrambles for the shore, trips, bangs her knee on the stones. A thin strand of watered blood runs down Martha’s leg like a ribbon as she picks herself up again. She must have cut herself on the stones, Emma Rose thinks, and she tries not to picture sharp teeth like mother of pearl.
Emma Rose wades for the shore, trying to quell the thoughts spinning through her head. The water resists her so she’s breathing hard by the time she gets to Martha’s side. Martha shivers, her teeth clenched so hard the vein below her jaw protrudes.
When Emma Rose touches Martha’s shoulder, Martha jerks away.
“Don’t,” Martha says, her voice fraying.
She gathers her clothes, and when she turns, she reveals a mark like a bruise, the faint outline of a hand upon her skin. More than that, it spreads dark tendrils through Martha’s veins, flushing them the color of ink and the darkening sky. Emma Rose blinks, but the mark refuses to disappear. She reaches for Martha again, but Martha steps back, holding her clothes against her in a wet bundle like a shield.
“Just stay away from me.”
Martha’s eyes are wide; they are hurt and afraid. Afraid of Emma Rose. She pivots, heels striking the ground hard and when she reaches the road, Martha runs. Her track star legs carry her away without a backward glance.
Emma Rose’s heart cracks, and it keeps cracking. The words she never got the chance to say lodge in her throat like barbs. Martha isn’t coming back. She’ll never talk to Emma Rose again. This is her fault. The woman tasted Martha on Emma Rose’s skin, and now she’s punishing her, hurting Martha to hurt Emma Rose.
The sky is full dark when Emma Rose flings herself back into the waves. She beats at them, letting her body rage. Salt water stands in for her tears. The ragged, horrible rhythm of her breath stands in place of screaming until her throat is raw and coughing up I love you in blood.
And when that is done, when her muscles tremble with exertion, she keeps swimming. If she’s only allowed to have one thing, then she chooses this. Hollow, numb, her skin wrinkled and every part of her hurting, she refuses to leave. The waves can’t frighten her away. Even though they took Martha, she won’t quit. This ocean is hers, and one days she will force it to carry her all the way to France.
Finally, exhausted, Emma Rose puts her face in the water and drifts. Her eyes sting. She holds her breath, and waits. She thinks of all those days with the woman gliding just beneath her, lending her strength to Emma Rose’s own. Will she come to share this heartbeat, too, to lessen the burden, ease the pain?
Emma Rose loses track of time. Her chest aches with the desire to breathe before the woman appears. The sharpness of the woman’s cheeks bones and ribs is even more pronounced now. The grey cast to her skin makes Emma Rose think of sharks and hunger.
Emma Rose is hungry, too. The woman looks like her. Maybe they have always been the same. Maybe they are both monsters, unfit for the love of any but their own kind.
Emma Rose lets out the last of her breath, bubbles escaping in a silent scream. The woman rises and Emma Rose falls, a tangle of arms. Coldwater lips crush against hers and Emma Rose bites down. Mouths and saltwater. Love on the cusp of violence. Desire that tastes like drowning. Release. It’s almost as good as crying.
* * *
Emma Rose goes back to swimming twice every day. She doesn’t speak to Martha. She avoids her in the halls. All the she needs is the water.
There’s a story Emma Rose remembers from when she was very young, from a big book of fairy tales, thick like an old-fashioned telephone book, with different colored pages. In the story, a rich man is visited every night by a ghost, or a water fairy. She stands at the end of his bed, dripping. She claims to love him, but he gets sick from lack of sleep and always being wet and cold. Finally, he tricks her into following him outside in winter so she freezes and never bothers him again.
The story both fascinated and terrified Emma Rose as a child. There was an illustration of the woman, glittering and perfect, frozen for all time, with no sense she would recover at winter’s end. Emma Rose could never work out who the villain was supposed to be – the man who only wanted a good night’s sleep, or the ghost who only wanted to be warm and loved. Maybe they were both monsters in their own way, perfect for each other.
It’s nearly a year before she allows herself to kiss another woman on land. Her name is Joan. She’s in her second year at university, and when Emma Rose meets her, she’s home on summer holiday. She has a ring through her eyebrow, and one through her nose, and others Emma Rose will discover later, hidden by her clothing. Joan’s laugh is almost a bray, unapologetic and full of joy. Her hair is red, not like Maureen’s long ago, but dyed and cut short, spiked like the crest of an exotic bird.
Emma Rose doesn’t love Joan; Joan is safe. She’ll be back at school soon. In-between, they go to cafes and music clubs. Once, they go to a traveling funfair. The Ferris wheel carries them high up and then stops, suspending them over the twinkling lights below. The car rocks when they kiss. Joan’s hands move under Emma Rose’s shirt, and for just a moment, Emma Rose feels like she is the exotic bird, the one who might take flight. For just a moment, she feels like everything might be okay.
She doesn’t take Joan to the beach. She never mentions the ocean at all. She leads a secret, double life, because she never stops swimming either.
She showed Martha her heart, the ocean, and she ran, so now Emma Rose keeps it locked inside. Instead of making time for the water in-between seeing Joan, she makes time for Joan by pulling herself away from the water – from the woman – as long as she can, which is never long.
* * *
Emma Rose is twenty-one when she attempts to cross the English Channel. Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to make the crossing, did it at nineteen. It was her second attempt, and she did it in fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes. Emma Rose has memorized the times and ages and number of attempts of every one of the women to cross the Channel, and some of the men, too. She will carry them with her when she steps into the water. If she succeeds, she will carry them with her all the way to the other side.
Emma Rose’s parents are both in the boat accompanying her. Like her grandfather’s sailing, like their love of cooking and baking, they understand her passion even if it doesn’t exactly match their own. The whole way across, they will be there to feed her sugar cubes and protein blocks, to give encouragement, and gather her in their arms whether she succeeds or fails.
Emma Rose enters the water at 6:09 a.m. Scraps of cloud cling to the sky, the moon forgetting to clean up after itself. The water is a deep blue, brushed with hints of purple and grey. Her hair is short, curls flattened under a swim cap. Emma Rose lowers her goggles, rolls her neck, shakes her arms out so they hang loose and long.
Breathe. She reaches as far as she can with each stroke. The waves don’t fight her, and she allows herself to hope. She keeps her rhythm steady. Stroke, stroke, stroke, turn, breathe. She kicks. She counts in her head, reciting names to keep time. Webb, Ederle, Toth. Breathe. Chadwick, Corson, Gleitze. Breathe. She sights by the boat so she doesn’t go off course. Her parents speak encouragement, but mostly she is alone with the water, with her lungs and her heartbeat. France waits for her on the other side.
At seven hours, the water grows choppy, but Emma Rose doesn’t stop. Her legs and arms burn. She has to fight a little harder against the weight of the water, but she won’t quit. She thinks about the woman, about the times she pressed her lips against Emma Rose’s, breathing for her. Doubt creeps in. What if she can’t do this one her own?
As she turns her head to breathe, Emma Rose catches a flash of long limbs, blue-grey skin and mother of pearl teeth. A wave of panic rolls through her. She tries to push the doubt away, but it nags, sapping her strength. Just past eight hours, a cramp hits, hot and bright as though a hand slapped against her muscles. She thinks of Martha on the beach years ago and the not-bruise blooming on her skin.
Emma Rose’s heart fractures infinitely and intimately, branching patterns reaching all through her bones. She bites down hard on her lip, tasting salt blood and tries to swim through the pain.
Please, let me go.
Her legs won’t cooperate, dead weight dragging her down.
A face glides just beneath hers, hair all twisting seaweed ribbons. Nothing about it is human except for the eyes – they are Emma Rose’s own. The woman opens her mouth, but no bubbles emerge. Her smile is gloating, mocking.
Don’t touch me, Emma Rose pleads silently. I want to do this on my own.
The woman reaches for her, and Emma Rose jerks upright. She signals the boat, the cramp stitching through her side, knotting her until she nearly screams. Hands pull her in, and maybe one hand lifts from the water, but whether it is to push her higher or pull her down, she cannot tell.
Emma Rose’s lips are blue, bruised, as though someone has pummeled them. She can’t stop shaking. Her mother wraps a thermal blanket around her shoulders. Her father brings her a thermos of tea, holding the cup because her hands are trembling.
Her parents put their arms around her. They tell her it will be okay. They can try again. Exhausted, Emma Rose leans against them and sobs her broken heart out. She is four years old again, and her parents encircle her with their bodies until there are no tears left, until she finally stops shaking, until she is warm.
* * *
Emma Rose tries again at twenty-three, and twenty-five, her confidence wearing thin. The first time, a mechanical failure in the boat turns them back; the second, an unexpected storm. She will never know whether she could have made it across. If she simply accepts the woman’s help, will all these problems go away? But if she does, will she really be the one making the crossing? Maybe she isn’t even meant to. The certainty she’s carried since she was four weights her like a stone. How many times can she try and fail? How many times can she stand to have her heart broken?
* * *
Emma Rose is twenty-seven years old when she meets her first serious girlfriend. Her name is Elizabeth. They move in together after three months, which seems both fast and far too long to wait. Emma Rose wants to be touching her all the time, brushing her fingertips across the back of Elizabeth’s hand, kissing her shoulder, pressing their legs against each other while they watch old movies and eat popcorn. It’s like she has to constantly remind herself Elizabeth is real and not just a story she’s told herself. That she won’t vanish, or run away.
They’ve been living together for almost nine months when Emma Rose wakes to rain pummeling the windows. Briefly, Emma Rose mistakes the wet hush of traffic outside their apartment for the sound of the tide. She sits up, counting the space between flashes of lightning and growls of thunder. For just a moment, she swears there’s a face in the water droplets, the outline of a woman’s cheekbones, sharper than any human’s should be, and a smile too wide. Emma Rose starts back. Is it her reflection? Is she imagining things?
“You okay?” Sleep-warm, Elizabeth sits up and wraps herself around Emma Rose, fitting her chin against Emma Rose’s shoulder as if it was purpose-made for just that thing.
Emma Rose shivers. There’s nothing outside but lightning and rain.
“Do you think it’s possible for a person to be haunted?” Emma Rose asks, thinking of the fairy tale from long ago.
“You mean like sheets and chains? Rattling doors and disembodied voices?”
The questions aren’t mocking. Emma Rose allows herself to sink back into Elizabeth’s embrace. It’s like the water long ago – holding her, knowing her, keeping her safe.
“Sort of.” She takes a deep breath. “When I was little, I saw something in the water.”
The whole story tumbles out. Elizabeth listens, never interrupting. The storm dies down until only the sound of rain dripping from the gutters remains. Emma Rose lapses into silence. She meets Elizabeth’s eyes, which are pale blue with a ring of darker blue around the edges.
“Do you believe me?” Emma Rose asks.
“Yes.” There is no hesitation. Elizabeth majored in English Literature and Comparative Mythology; Emma Rose shouldn’t be surprised she understands about fairies and ghosts.
“You don’t…I mean, you’re not…” Emma Rose stops, unsure how to ask Elizabeth if she’ll stay.
“Hey.” Elizabeth catches Emma Rose’s hands, pressing them between her own. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Why?” Emma Rose breathes out, afraid of the hope wanting to grow inside her.
“I don’t scare that easily.” Elizabeth smiles. “Besides, we all have our things, right? I support you, you support me.”
“Yeah?” Emma Rose allows herself to relax just a little bit. “What’s your thing?”
“Well, when you’re rich and famous for crossing the Channel, I’ll let you pay for everything while I go back to school. Then you can suffer through endless stuffy dinners with my fellow academics. It’ll be a glamorous life, but it’ll be ours.”
Ours. The word beats inside Emma Rose, timed with her heart. It is echoed by words never spoken aloud, which she’s long imagined spoken by blue-grey lips, slipping through teeth like mother of pearl. You need me, just like I need you.
She’s always thought it meant a choice, to take the ocean into her heart and nothing else, or give up on her dream. But maybe there’s more.
“There are creatures that can’t cross running water, right?” She tests the words out loud, feeling her way through them as she speaks.
“Sure.” Elizabeth’s eyes are bright, curious.
“What if my ghost, or whatever she is can’t step onto dry land without me.”
It sounds silly, but Elizabeth puts her head to the side like she’s considering Emma Rose’s words. Maybe her ghost just wants to be warm and loved. Maybe neither of them are monsters. Maybe they can help each other somehow.
“If I try the crossing again, will you be there with me?” Emma Rose holds her breath. She looks into Elizabeth’s eyes with all their myriad shades of blue.
“Of course,” Elizabeth says. She wraps her hands around Emma Rose’s. When they kiss, Emma Rose is light, buoyant, completely safe and surrounded. Elizabeth is the ocean that keeps her afloat.
* * *
Emma Rose is twenty-eight when she and Elizabeth walk down an aisle of strewn rose petals in her parents’ garden. Emma Rose promises herself she won’t cry, and breaks her promise in the first five minutes. Her father is there with a tissue, his eyes bright and teary as well. They stumble through their vows, and even though Elizabeth cries too, when they kiss, somehow it doesn’t taste like salt at all.
There’s cake afterward, and champagne, and dancing, and the garden is strung with fairy lights. Over the music, Emma Rose hears the hush of waves. As they slow dance their last song, Emma Rose listens to Elizabeth’s heartbeat, her breath, timed to Emma Rose’s own. A sudden thought hits her, and it’s like being bowled over by a wave. Needing someone else doesn’t mean that she isn’t also strong.
“I’m ready to try again,” she says in a whisper so low she almost hopes Elizabeth won’t hear.
“I know.” Elizabeth brushes her lips across Emma Rose’s brow. “I’ve already arranged for the boat and a hotel. We’ll honeymoon in Paris when you get to the other side.”
Emma Rose’s breath catches. She looks at Elizabeth with the fairy lights gleaming in her hair. Elizabeth smiles, and Emma Rose falls in love all over again. She will keep Emma Rose safe; they will keep each other safe. If Emma Rose falters, Elizabeth will be right there to pull her from the waves, into her arms.
* * *
They set out at dawn. Emma Rose’s belly is a knot of nerves. The sun rises as she steps into the water. Up to her calves, to her knees. Breathe. She has known the water all her life, in all its moods, and all of hers. She will cross it. They will carry each other, all the way to the other side.
Emma Rose lets the ocean take her weight. Elizabeth is by her side, waiting to feed her sugar cubes and protein, to speak encouragement. Emma Rose stretches her arm as long as it can go, and reaches for the opposite shore.
Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe. Her feet kick in time with her heartbeat. A shadow glides beneath her, her twin. The face isn’t remotely human anymore. Bones like blades press against grey skin; mother of pearl teeth gleam in a mouth too wide. Gills slit the sides of the woman’s throat, and there are webs between her long fingers and toes. After all this time, Emma Rose knows her the way she knows the waves, and she refuses to be afraid.
If the woman is part of her, so be it. This is still her journey. They will be each other’s guide. The woman lifts a hand, palm flat, facing Emma Rose and waits.
Emma Rose is twenty-eight when she lets go of doubt and fear. She reaches out and presses her palm flat against the webbed hand waiting below her. She lets her love for Elizabeth flow through her, lets the woman taste it from her skin. Here is a little piece of dry land inside the ocean, a little bit of warmth and love. Emma Rose forgives her, and is forgiven in turn. The woman rises, Emma Rose does not fall. When their lips touch, it tastes of nothing but goodbye.