Never Ending Litany by Diane Arrelle

We sat and stared at the surfboard. Short, brightly colored like a rainbow, that board was all we had left.

Bud had spent his entire life as a grasshopper, all play and no work, and now as we sat at his memorial service, all he had to show for a lifetime of 35 short years was this piece of foam, fiberglass and epoxy resin.

I couldn’t even cry. My eyes had cried too much and now they were dry. The only salt water left in my life was outside the old funeral home that sat on a shabby side street not far from the Atlantic Ocean. That ocean, oblivious to our grief, just kept pounding the sand over and over in a never-ending litany.

The service was short. There was little to say about my brother. He had been all I had left to love in the entire world and he had vanished into the surf while trying to catch just one more wave. A fitting end, I decided. No, an inevitable end.

The funeral director said in his soft, sympathetic voice—a voice trained to show compassion and ease pain even if it wasn’t heartfelt, “And now, Bud’s sister, Abigail, would like to say a few words.”

I got up, still stiff from the long drive from the rolling mountains of Pennsylvania. I know it’s normally a three-hour drive, but I took the four-hour route through farmlands and the pine barrens, avoiding the AC Expressway filled with gamblers and late summer tourists. Walking slowly, I took the few steps to the front and then standing next to that surfboard, my mind went blank. What would Bud want me to say? I wondered, and then I knew. He’d want me to say nothing. We never had to speak to communicate and I didn’t have to speak now. “Thank you all for coming,” I said to the small crowd of shore locals who were Bud’s companions, not mine. Then I turned and left the building.

I walked down the street and looked for the places we’d hung out growing up. Passing the sprawling building that had replaced the old high school that once stood for nearly a century made me nostalgic and sad. It had been a magnificent old castle, but progress had come to this tiny island city. Progress came in the shape of gambling palaces that destroyed all the real landmarks and filled the empty spaces with shiny, monstrous buildings covered in flashing, brightly colored lights, several of which now stood closed and dark.

Everything familiar was gone, the good with the bad. They razed the slums for luxury condos, they cleared the boardwalk of almost everything original. Between controlled detonations, mysterious fires, and the demolition ball, the face of Atlantic City was forever altered. My memories were having a hard time competing with the present. Atlantic City had been my home for my first 21 years and through all the changes I knew that at least the sand and the ocean were still the same.

I turned and headed to the ramp that led up to the boardwalk. The weathered wooden slats hadn’t been changed by progress and that was reassuring. I walked down the wooden ramp that lead to the beach on the other side of the man-made dune and stared out at the gray expanse. The ocean was eternally the same: the waves rushing to shore; the waves pulling back to the depths only to roll back in and rush the shore again. It never ended, it never stopped, it just calmed down some days and roared with a vengeance on others.

I studied the ocean and I thought about Bud. Bud had chosen to disappear forever on a vengeance day. He knew better than to surf in a storm ocean, he knew better than to surf after the sunset. But I guess the call got too strong.

It had gotten too strong for me. I said I left to find work, I said I left because I had grown up too much for this island. But I knew that I really left because I was too afraid to face the call’s growing strength.

I felt a tear roll down my cheek. I was surprised that I was still capable of crying and I wondered if the tiny briny drop was for my lost brother, my lost youth, or for my cowardice.

The late September afternoon sun was shining, making the water glitter and sparkle in dancing patterns. I cocked my head and listened.

I heard it, the call, but it was daytime faint. I knew the water was autumn warm and I started to head toward it. What harm would it do to wade out a little? The sun was out and I knew I’d be safe.

I headed onto the beach. The warm white sand gave beneath my feet and I felt like I was trudging through the desert. But as soon as I hit the high tide line, the sand became cool and hard and I burrowed my toes into the grayish surface. I was home and I felt that maybe, just maybe, all was not lost after all.

I took a step toward the water when the call became more intense. It was no longer tugging at me, it was pulling me in. I wanted to be afraid, but I knew the ocean loved me. I spent my entire life listening to it tell me so with sub-verbal foreplay, sweet-talking me.

For the first time in 12 years I could feel its need, and as if no time had passed at all, I yielded to the sea. I stepped in up to my knees and let the water swirl around my legs, pulling, pulling gently, pulling back toward the deep and then shoving, gently shoving, back to the beach. Before I could help myself, I dove into a wave. I felt myself tumbling as the rough currents just under the surface grabbed me. I broke free, just like old times and stood in thigh deep water. I remembered suddenly that I had just been at my brother’s memorial service when I realized my black skirt was bunched up around my waist. I shrugged to myself, smiled and dove in again. After all, the ocean was my home, no matter where I resided.

At one point, I felt myself hit another swimmer. I had been riding a wave in, when a thump broke my momentum and I tumbled head over heels, then righted myself. I stood to see if the other swimmer was all right. There was no one there.  Turning, I searched the shore, then the horizon, but I was alone. I shuddered, a ripple of fear going through me. I looked to the west, past the back bay, and I noticed that the sun was lower in the sky. It was late afternoon, time to head back to the hotel. I trudged out of the surf and as I left the water, I shuddered again and not just from the late afternoon chill. Maybe after dinner, I’d visit Mom in the nursing home.

I didn’t want to go there. She didn’t know me, didn’t know her son was gone. Harvey, the bastard, had shoved her out of their home on the island and made her live out her last years in limbo a few miles inland. I fought off the waves of sadness that threatened to overwhelm me. She never wanted to leave Absecon Island. It had always been her home, she was born here and deserved to die here.

Damn Harvey, anyway, I decided. He didn’t deserve it, but he’d get their home—our home. I’m sure he made Mom sign it over to him before she got sick. If only Dad was alive, but that was the whole problem: Dad had drowned when I was 14 and Bud 16.  Mom would say, “You can’t expect me to live my entire life alone, can you?” every time one of us complained about her second husband, the rat Harvey. I guess she was right. She deserved some happiness; after all, Dad died, not her. But Harvey… I never warmed to him.

I trudged through the powdery sand back to the boardwalk, seaweed in my hair and my clothing ruined by my little dip. The salt water was slowly drying on my skin and I was beginning to itch. The sand on my feet made my shoes rub. Gotta get back to the hotel, I decided, when something grabbed my shoulder. My mind flashed back to my collision with no one in the water just a few minutes before, and I screamed. The grip tightened. I pushed it off and spun around.

“Abby! I knew that was you!”

When I said there was no one back here for me, I was wrong. There was always Terry. I had spent years trying to forget him, yet here he was, grinning at me like I was the most exciting thing he had ever seen. “Abby, you look wonderful!”

I brushed at the hair hanging around my head in wet sandy clumps and struggled to push my skirt back down where it belonged. “Uh… Terry,” I sputtered, totally unprepared for this meeting while remembering how I had secretly hoped for it. Only not quite like this. No, I had imagined myself a little more presentable and of course devastatingly beautiful because I liked to pretend I had aged more than gracefully over the last decade.

I laughed.

He laughed. “God, it is so great to see you again. I… I think about you…a lot.”

Before I could stop myself, I said, “I think about you too.”

We shared a moment of awkward silence. Guess it’s the way it goes when love ends at an impasse, I thought as I struggled to find something clever and noncommittal to say.

Terry broke the silence, “I went to the funeral home, but the service was over. That was quick.”

“I’m sure Bud would have appreciated it,” I said.

“I didn’t go for Bud. I went there to see you.”

“Oh,” was all I could manage. My eyes were burning and I realized that I had been wrong at that funeral home…there were still lots of tears left in me, after all.

“I came up here and saw you coming out of the water. So I waited.”

A cold fear rushed through me as I asked, “So who was the other swimmer I crashed into?”

Terry shrugged. “You were alone out there, fearless as always.”

I shivered. Fearless may be the wrong word because I was suddenly feeling frightened by my inexplicable encounter out in the surf.

“Hey, you’re cold. Why don’t you go to your room and I’ll come by in an hour or so and we can grab some dinner and talk…about old times.”

“Ok,” I agreed. “I’m staying two blocks down the boardwalk at a small beachfront place. You’ll know which one.” I giggled and he knew immediately which motel—the one we’d go to when either one of us had a couple of extra bucks. Then I gave him a quick peck on the cheek and rushed down the boardwalk, trying to work up some warmth in the chilled early evening air.

After I had gone to my room and changed, I stood on the second-floor balcony and stared out at the dark gray waves playfully rushing toward the lighter gray beach. I glanced up and down the boardwalk looking for something familiar. Even this hotel, which was old and slightly dumpy, was surrounded by hotels both new and unfamiliar. I knew this block, I used to babysit at an old two-story motel right down the way. I waitressed at the restaurant two blocks away, but that is now the site of a high-rise condo.

I was tired and I didn’t know what to do with myself for the next hour. In all the years I had lived here, I never cared for anyone except my family and Terry. I was a loner and now as I stood watching the daylight fade completely, I was totally alone.

The air got chillier, or maybe it was the water getting darker. As much as I loved the ocean in the daytime, I feared it completely in the night. I didn’t even know what drove me to take a room instead of driving back to the Poconos and the safety of the mountains.

Something lived in that ocean of darkness. Something more than fish. I always felt it there and I was always afraid. I never joined in beach parties and I never made-out with the guys under the boardwalk. Everyone used to tell me I was nuts. But I knew I wasn’t.

Bud knew it too. And so did Mom, although she never admitted to it to me. But I knew. I’d overhear her warning Dad about night fishing. About the things that live in the waves. He always laughed at her, but she had been right. One night he went out and the next day he was found dead, washed up on the beach.

Whatever it was that lived inside the water hadn’t wanted him. Dad had come from Chicago and never heard the call. All he ever heard was the crash of the waves.

Suddenly the call changed. It wasn’t the call of the daytime ocean. No, it was the call of the night. The one I had to ignore. Yet it gave me an idea. I called and left a message for Terry, he never moved away or changed his number. I knew that because sometimes when I was particularly lonely, I’d call just to hear his recorded voice. I told him I had to go out, but if he wanted I could meet him later and left my cell number.

Then I drove to the nursing home to visit mom. The nurse was nowhere to be seen so I entered without signing in. I went to Mom’s room. She didn’t know me, but that was to be expected. “Hi Mom, I’ve come to take you home. I’ve come to take you where you belong.”

I got her on her feet and we marched right out of the building, no one was on duty to see us leave. I guess the nurse or orderly had decided to light up another smoke.

I put mom in the passenger seat and drove back to the beach. She never said a word so I babbled just in case she could understand anything. I parked at my hotel and led Mom out to the slate-colored beach. I could hear the waves and I could see that mom was responding to them. She smiled.

I could hear the voice of the ocean clearly as well, but it wasn’t calling to me. It was calling Mom. She smiled and nodded and stumbled toward the dark sea. The water was ebony, the sand a deep dark gray. The lights from the street above us didn’t reach to the water.

“Mom, wait,” I said and took her hand. “Is this what you want?”

In answer she pulled her hand from my grasp, gently ran her fingers along my face, and then turned her back to me and walked into the dark abyss of the ocean. I lost sight of her almost immediately. It looked as if she stumbled, but at the same time, I swear she was pulled down under the waves.

I waited, the voice became voices, the call became stronger. I wanted to turn and run away. I wanted to rush into the water and save my mother. Instead, I just stood and finally let all the pent up tears fall. “Mom!”

She never came up again. She was gone. “Mom,” I called, “Mom, are you with Bud? I love you!”

I stood for another half an hour or so, then backed away. The calling had stopped. No one wanted me anymore tonight. I caught a feeling coming from the surf, from inside the waves. I swear I felt love.

I sat on the steps leading to the boardwalk and wondered if I were some kind of monster. I had just killed my mother and all I could feel was love and contentment. I knew she was happy now, at peace. Harvey would get the house. I could go home after her memorial service; after all, there’d be nobody and no reason to ever return. Mom was where she wanted to be, in the place she had always loved.

Someone touched my shoulder. Without thinking I tried to pull away and screamed. Either the police had found me out or the things under the water were going to finally get me.

“Hey, Abby,” Terry said. “I thought that was you. Boy, are you jumpy.”

I turned to face him and grabbed hold of him. He was warm and alive and felt just as good as he had all those years ago. He wrapped his arms around me and we stood there. I wanted to tell him about Mom, to blurt out that I had let her die, that I had caused her to die. So I kissed him instead.

We went back to my room and took up where we had left off, in mid-affair. I slept beside him, wrapped in his arms and wondered why I had ever insisted on leaving this place. I loved Atlantic City and so did he. He understood the ocean and its voices and he was strong enough to withstand them. I knew I could never have that strength, so I ran. I ran away from the only man I had ever and would ever love, I ran away from my family. I had been a coward. Bud had been the brave one. He knew his fate and had stayed to meet it. Well, I was back now and if Terry wanted me too, I would stay to meet my fate as well, whatever it was to be.

The next morning Harvey called my room. Even if he didn’t come to the service, he’d been aware that I was in town. “Hello, Abigail, your mother wandered away from the home. Obviously the security wasn’t very good there. The police are looking for her now. I’ll call you when I hear something.”

He hung up. He hadn’t waited for me to speak, he just said what he had to say and hung up.

Just as well, I decided. No one was going to find her, I knew she was gone and wouldn’t wash up later. Bud would never wash up and neither would Mom. The sea had called them and the sea would keep them. I turned to see Terry watching me. “Hi there,” I said and tried to purr. He reached for me and we spent the entire day in bed, eating chips and drinking soda from the vending machines.

As the sun began to set, he rose, took a shower and announced, “I want to take you out to that dinner we missed last night. Get dressed.”

I obeyed and we went out to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner. We ate at a wonderfully cheap but satisfying hole in the wall where we had shared so many meals in the past. Then we walked on the almost deserted boardwalk. A fog was rolling in and he said, “I want to make love to you on the beach.”

The voice that rolled in with the surf told me that was a great idea. “No!”

“Why not,” he asked. “Are you still afraid of the beach at night?”

“You know I am.”

“Just come down, you will see, it’s safe. I walk the beach all the time at night.”

“Don’t the voices talk to you? Don’t they tell you to join them?” I asked him.

“I decided a long time ago that the voices weren’t real, it is just the sounds of the waves meeting the shore.”

“The voices are real, and now more voices have joined in. Can’t you hear what they say?”

He laughed a kind, gentle laugh. “What do they tell you, Abby? Do they tell you that you are beautiful and that I love you?”

“They tell me that they love me,” I whispered. “They want to love me forever.”

He took my hand and pulled me down onto the sandy beach. “Come with me, I am strong enough to protect you from whatever you think is out there. Let me show you that there is nothing to be afraid of in the water.”

“I can’t!” I cried and tried to pull away. “I’m afraid. What if they finally get me?”

He pulled me along and soon we stood at the water’s edge. We stood in silence for a moment and the voices stopped. “See,” Terry said. “Nothing to fear.”

I looked at him but it was too dark to see his face. “You heard them and you heard them stop.” I said with a gasp, “You do hear them!”

“Sometimes,” he said. “But I’ve gone swimming with them and they never hurt me. They don’t want me and I’ll make sure they don’t want you. You are mine now. Come wade out a bit and I’ll protect you.”

I let him lead me out into the black water, into the place that scared me the most. The air was chilly and the water warm. It felt good brushing and swirling around my legs and then my thighs. It got higher and I felt safe holding onto Terry’s warm, secure hand.

As I began to relax and let the fear go, the voices bellowed to me. They called me by name and before I could react a wave smashed into me and knocked me off my feet. I lost my grip on Terry’s hand as the voices called, “Abigail, we’ve waited. You belong to us, you belong here with us. We love you Abigail. Stay!”

“No,” I screamed. The water rushed into my mouth and down my throat. I struggled to find Terry’s hand and bumped into him. I grabbed his legs and tried to pull myself up. Something from inside the waves grabbed me, held me down. The legs weren’t Terry at all. They were from something inside the waves. I opened my mouth to scream again and the salt water washed into my lungs. I felt this incredible rush of sadness and loss as I breathed in the briny death. I was never going to be with Terry. I was going to die. I’d never wash to shore, just like Mom, Bud, and all the other drowning victims who disappeared forever. I was doomed to die just as I finally accepted happiness.

I wondered why I was still under the waves, still alive. I had stopped breathing and I was losing myself, my form. I was changing, melting, melding, becoming the ocean and yet still separate. I looked around and could see with a new vision. I was surrounded by others like me, formless yet still there.

“Welcome, Abigail,” the voices inside the waves said. “You made us wait a long time for you to come home.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, but then I did. Some souls just belong to another place, souls like mine, I realized. And like Bud, and like Mom, who were both there with me. I wasn’t dead, I was just changed. I had joined my real family, the ones who would love me forever. We were in the place we belonged.

I looked out through the cresting wave that surrounded me and I could see the lights of Atlantic City, shining across the beach. “It’s pretty,” I said and the voices agreed.

“It will always be pretty in one form or another and we will always be here to see it.”

I felt a rush of remorse as I saw Terry standing at the water’s edge screaming my name. “Poor Terry,” I sighed. “I loved him.”

“Don’t regret, Abigail. He hears us as a voice. When you join us it will become voices and our voices combined are strong. Call to him and he will join you, he can hear and he is meant to be with us. Be patient and you will be together forever. We are the never-ending litany.”

As the next wave crested around me, I saw Terry fall to his knees and sob.

“I love you,” I said and he looked up.

And I knew everything would be all right someday, because he had heard my voice in the waves.